What Is Dispensational Theology?

Dispensational theology takes a particular view of the Bible's descriptions of future events, and Israel's place in the future. Here is what you need to know about this particular theological viewpoint. 

Author of Someplace to Be Somebody
Updated May 18, 2022
What Is Dispensational Theology?

What Is Dispensational Theology?

Dispensational theology sustains that the covenant promises (spiritual, national, and physical) to Abraham, Moses, David and the new covenant which Jesus embodied must be literally fulfilled. The scope of the fulfilled promises includes Israel, the nations, and the land. While Jesus fulfilled some of the promises, others will not come to fruition until His second coming.

The spiritual sanctions (such as forgiveness of sins, Jew-Gentile harmony, salvation, and the indwelling Holy Spirit) must occur along with the physical promises. These include promises involving nations, land, society, cultivation, etc. In addition, God’s promises to the Jewish nation (ethnic and national) must be fulfilled.

Some of the covenants are partially fulfilled with the church, but the complete consummation, which includes promises to Israel, will not be realized until Jesus returns and establishes His kingdom.

Specifics of dispensational theology include:

1. Futurism: Dispensational theology claims to have a future vision, meaning numerous biblical prophecies will not see fulfillment until a future time. Dispensationalists see Matthew 24-25, Mark 13; Luke 21, and Revelation 6-22:55 as fitting this framework. Dispensationalism maintains that Daniel’s seventieth week (Daniel 9:27) is a future event involving the great tribulation and the Antichrist’s horrific actions.

2. Premillennialism: An across-the-board belief of all dispensationalists. They also believe the millennium is Christ’s 1,000-year reign on earth following His second advent. Therefore, premillennial dispensationalists believe Christ will have been on earth three times—the first advent, the rapture, and the second coming (see Revelation 20:1-6). The millennium culminates Old Testament passages referring to the coming kingdom (Isaiah 9, 11; Zechariah 14).

3. The Church: Dispensational theology agrees God has—throughout history—sustained a particular people, but the New Testament brought the church, which is recorded in the book of Acts. The church is linked with and shepherded in by Jesus the Christ and the Holy Spirit’s ministry of baptism. The Old Testament did not have these authenticities, and along with Christ’s role as Head of His church comes the offices of elders, deacons, etc. The church is also commissioned to “…go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:18-20). These particulars of the church are distinct from the traditional role of the nation and peoples of Israel, yet most dispensationalists believe the church will govern alongside Jesus during the millennium (Revelation 2:26-27, 3:21).

4. Pre-Tribulation Rapture of the Church: Many dispensationalists believe, according to 1 Thessalonians 1:10 and Revelation 3:10, God has promised to keep the church from His wrath during the seven-year tribulation. Further, 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 allegedly describes the church’s rapture, where believers are “caught up” to heaven, out of the fray where the Antichrist will wreak havoc on the earth. (Some other dispensationalists ascribe to a mid-tribulation, post-tribulation, and pre-wrath views). It can get confusing, making it a good thing it’s not a non-negotiable tenet of the faith.

5. Israel: Dispensational theology declares that ethnic/national Israel continues to have an important role in God’s economy and purposes, which extends into the future. Using Romans 11:26 as another proof text, dispensational theologians say God has saved a remnant of the Jews in this age and plans to restore the whole of the nation when Jesus returns, thereby retaining the sharp distinction between Israel and the church. Since the church as instituted in the New Testament is not Israel, God’s promises to Israel cannot find their fulfillment in the church. Therefore, God must deal with Israel because they are the ones to whom He made the initial covenants.

The Israel-church distinction means that promises and covenants made with Israel cannot be completely fulfilled with the church since the church is not Israel. God must fulfill His promises with the group to whom the promises originally were made (i.e., ethnic/national Israel). As Michael J. Vlach outlines, “Some dispensationalists believe no promises to Israel find fulfillment in the church today (Classical Dispensationalists), while others believe there is a partial fulfillment of some covenant promises with the church (Progressive Dispensationalists). But all dispensationalists believe the complete fulfillment of Old Testament promises will occur in the future when Israel is saved and restored.”

In addition, this theological belief system describes the Jews’ previous relationship with Jesus as one of disbelief and rejection during His first Advent (Luke 19:41-44). Although still in a state of unbelief and rejection, at Jesus’ second coming, the Jewish people will collectively believe in Him (Romans 11:12, 15, 26). Dispensationalists call Jesus the “ultimate Israelite” who will come to save all of Israel and bless the Gentiles in the church age.

According to dispensational theology, God imposed covenant curses on Israel because of its historical disobedience. In the future, Israel will receive covenant blessings for believing and obeying (Deuteronomy 30:1-10). In an about-face from this current age of grace (where the church is enjoying the Father’s blessings), when Jesus returns, the Jews will enjoy a leading role over the nations, therefore blessing them (Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 25:31).

What Is the History of Dispensational Theology?

Nineteenth-century minister John Nelson Darby developed dispensational theology after an extended study of Isaiah 32. Through his analysis, he surmised Israel would experience earthly blessings in a future dispensation different than what the church would enjoy. Darby and others from the Plymouth Brethren movement brought the belief to the American shores and gained a strong footing through conferences and institutes. The Dallas Theological Seminary was founded on dispensational theology principles, and some of its renowned teachers influenced its rise throughout the country. 

Later, dispensational theology was manifested through Hal Lindsey’s popular book The Late Great Planet Earth, followed by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’ massively popular fiction series Left Behind. Dispensational theology is still prevalent among people who believe the church will experience a premillennial rapture.

Which Christian Views Are Opposed to Dispensational Theology?

Within Christendom, there are non-negotiable and distinctive doctrines. A non-negotiable doctrine cannot be compromised. For example, the doctrines that we are saved through faith, Jesus alone is our Savior, the Bible is the Word of God, and the Resurrection of Jesus are all non-negotiable. A distinctive doctrine is a Christian belief that does not mitigate their stance on salvific doctrine. Dispensational theology may be classified as a distinctive doctrine.

That being said, reformed covenant theology is the most diametric opponent to dispensational theology. We will look at one major difference. Covenant theology says there is but “one people of God,” and there is a continuation of His people between the Old Testament and the New. Some dispensationalists claim covenant theology is a form of “replacement theology.” But this is not the case, for the church is God’s continuation of His people, although it looks different than in the Old Testament. Jesus called His church to be one (John 17:22). If so, why would He not include Jewish people who come to saving faith in Him?

An important passage to review regarding one people of God is the olive tree analogy used by Paul in Romans 11. He told his Gentile audience not to be arrogant toward Jewish believers: “But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree” (Romans 11:17). There is but one olive tree (God’s long-existing people) and branches broken off by God (e.g., unbelieving Jews, Pharisees). This leaves only branches which are believers (Jesus’ Apostles), and Gentile believers are added to the tree. They do not replace what was there: they are instead grafted in, and now the olive tree (God’s people) is composed of Jewish and Gentile believers.

The tree is the church, and it has the unity of Gentile and Jewish believers as part of it. If the opposite were true, Paul would have illustrated a grove of Gentile olive trees and one tree representing Israel. The new tree would be the church, and God would graft believing Jews and Gentiles from the other trees into the new tree. Instead, God has one tree of believers—started in the Old Testament, continuing in the New—filled with believing Gentiles and Jews. 

See also Paul’s words to the Gentile believers in Ephesians 2:11-22 about being “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” A dispensationalist would say Gentiles are not of Abraham’s seed. Yet Paul spoke of Abraham’s offspring as Jesus Christ. Then, in Galatians 3:29, Paul said, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” One tree, superintended by God, to bring unity to His church.

Further Reading:

Dispensation Definition and Meaning

What Is Dispensationalism and Who Believes It?

What Is Premillennialism?

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/kevron2001

Lisa Baker 1200x1200Lisa Loraine Baker is the multiple award-winning author of Someplace to be Somebody. She writes fiction and nonfiction. In addition to writing for the Salem Web Network, Lisa serves as a Word Weavers’ mentor and is part of a critique group. She also is a member of BRRC. Lisa and her husband, Stephen, a pastor, live in a small Ohio village with their crazy cat, Lewis. 

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