Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism (Part 1)

by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., Th.D., Director, NiceneCouncil.com

Personal Background

I was once a dispensationalist. I was converted under a dispensational ministry (a youth camp at Florida Bible College: 1966). I immediately joined a dispensational church and eventually taught Sunday school (Calvary Bible Church, Chattanooga, Tenn.: 1966–1973). I worked my way through college while employed at a dispensational bookstore (Lanham’s Bible Bookshop, Chattanooga, Tenn.: 1969–73).

I graduated from a dispensational college with a degree in Biblical Studies (Tennessee Temple College: 1973). While enrolled there I took a course titled “Premillennialism” (taught by my favorite teacher, Dr. Dennis Wisdom: 1972).While there all my courses were informed by dispensational theology (dispensationalism is not simply an eschatology; it is a fully operational, wholesale theology.) My first books forming the foundation of my personal library were dispensational works (the very first one being J. Dwight Pentecost’s Things to Come). I was enrolled for two years at a dispensational seminary (Grace Theological Seminary 1973–75) — until I raptured to Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, Mississippi: 1975)

I was truly a dispensationalist. An academically-trained, research-oriented, Greek-reading dispensationalist. I didn’t get my dispensationalism totally from televangelists (though several times I heard Jack Van Impe preach in chapel at Tennessee Temple College and Bible conferences hosted by its mother church, Highland Park Baptist Church). I got my dispensationalism from Ph.D.s trained at dispensational schools and from reading the more carefully written books by Walvoord, Ryrie, and Pentecost. I even knew the word “Rapture” didn’t appear in Scripture. I was no fly-by-night dispensationalist; I was armed and dangerous.

But I converted out of dispensationalism (see earlier blog: “I Was a Teenage Dispensationalist”): by God’s grace I escaped the confusing and complicated system. I will confess, however, that converting out of dispensationalism cannot be accomplished overnight. Even once the break has been effected the convert will require years of re-learning the Bible. There is no such thing as a quick fix.

In fact, the confusion caused by the dispensational system is such that for several years I still had dispensational reflexes which I had to overcome. For instance, I reflexively began looking heavenward the first few times I heard there was an earthquake somewhere in the world. For a number of months I continued to instinctively begin each spoken sentence with the words: “According to biblical prophecy.” But this all began to fade until here I am today: not the least inclined to predict the date of the rapture or suggest the name of the Antichrist. I have even let my membership in Former Dispensationalists Anonymous lapse. I have now been sober from the wine of dispensationalism for over thirty-five years.

Developing the Tool

In an evangelism course (Course number: Bi-203) at Tennessee Temple College we learned “The Romans Road to Salvation.” This is a method of gospel witness that presents the gospel totally from within Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. This is easy to do since the basics of the gospel are embedded in Romans. This is a convenient and effective means of evangelism because it keeps one’s attention on one book of the Bible, preventing the confusion that can arise from jumping from book to book.

Over the years I have developed an effective approach for witnessing to dispensationalists. I call it “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism.” Though dispensationalism is a relatively recent theology in the history of Christianity (having arisen around 1830), when you read Ephesians you could almost surmise that Paul was writing this letter to combat dispensationalism! You could well imagine a first century Christian going to a Christian Scroll Store and picking up a copy of Ephesians in the Counter Cults section.

Ephesians runs roughshod over so many distinctives of dispensationalism that it serves as an effective vehicle for driving Christians out of this false theological quagmire. You will find this vehicle so easy to operate that you will watch in amazement as your erstwhile dispensational friends are driven desperately to searching the newspapers to see if these things be so. But take heart: they will eventually return to Scripture where you want them. There they will crawl into your Ephesiansmobile, crank it up, and drive out of the valley of the shadow of dispensationalism.

I will briefly survey a few elements in Ephesians so that you might use “The Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism” as a means of witnessing to dispensationalists. Let’s get started.

Christ is Now King

Dispensationalism holds that Christ came in the first century to offer an earthly-political kingdom to Israel, but that she rejected it. Consequently, Christ withdrew his kingdom offer, postponed his kingdom, and then established the Church as a stop-gap until the Jews are converted later. At that time they will be ready to accept him as king so that the millennium may be established. Dispensationalists argue vehemently that Christ is not now reigning as king.

However, Paul contradicts this (unusual) dispensational doctrine. In Ephesians 1:20–23 he declares: “He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.”

Several enormous problems present themselves to dispensationalism’s postponed kingdom view, showing that Christ is as a matter of fact now enthroned as king.

First, we see quite clearly that Jesus in fact has already been seated at God’s right hand in heaven. This being “seated” (aorist participle signifying a past reality) at “God’s right hand” obviously speaks of his being seated at God’s throne in heaven. After all, Jesus himself declares elsewhere that he “sat down with My Father on his throne” (cp. Mark 16:19; Acts 7:56; Heb 8:1; 1 Pet 3:22).

In fact, when he was being tried by the rulers of Israel they asked him if he was the Christ. He chastised them for not believing him in this regard (Luke 22:66–78). He then warned them that he was soon to be seated with God in heaven: “But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Luke 22:69). No postponement theory here: in the very context of Israel’s formal, official, and final rejection of him he declared that he would be “seated at the right hand of the power of God” despite their rejection.

Second, we further learn that his throne is in heaven and not on the earth. This contradicts a fundamental of dispensationalism’s premillennial scheme. The Messianic throne is not a literal throne on earth, it is a spiritual reality in heaven. Thus, his reign does not involve political and bureaucratic rule. Rather it is a spiritual-redemptive reality. The earthly kingship of Christ is absolutely denied by Paul.

Third, this enthronement in Ephesians gives Christ authority “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Indeed, God “put all things in subjection under His feet.” This is as high an authority as is possible. What would be the point of his coming to the earth to rule in a literal millennium? He is the ruler of all things now. Why would he come to rule in Jerusalem in a millennium? Why would he leave his heavenly throne where he rules universally to return to his earthly footstool to rule locally (Isa 66:1; Matt 5:35; Acts 7:49)?

Fourth, in fact, Paul says that Christ’s rule continues “not only in this age [right now!], but also in the one to come.” If dispensationalists claim that Christ is not now ruling, then what is Paul talking about? Paul sees Christ’s current function at the right hand of God as not only present now, but as continuing into the future age which lies beyond the present age. Put in the best possible light for dispensationalism, they should argue that his kingship takes a new form in the millennium. But their peculiar system construct will not allow this. In their view, Christ’s kingdom was presented, rejected, and postponed. He is not now in any way reigning as king. According to their system requirements Paul is simply mistaken.

Fifth, this kingly rule of Christ is related “to the church.” And this church is “His body.” But the church is the very redemptive-historical institution that dispensationalism distinguishes from Israel — and therefore from the millennial kingdom. In fact, in their dispensational structuring of history, the present age is the Church Age, which is to be followed by (and distinguished) from the Kingdom Age (the millennium). Indeed, one of dispensationalism’s sine qua non is the permanent distinction between Israel and the church.

Conclusion to Part One

I hope you can see that in the very first chapter of Ephesians Paul leaves the key in his Ephesiansmobile. He even has the engine running. All that is required is that we put the vehicle in gear and then drive out of the quagmire known as dispensationalism. (Thankfully the Ephesiansmobile is a four wheel drive all-terrain vehicle.) This we will do in our next installment. I will be continuing this “Ephesians Road Out of Dispensationalism” in a future Against-Dispensationalism blog. Stay tuned. Come see us next week!