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Dispensing with ultra-dispensationalism

September 2015 | by Frank Peachey

Jerusalem and the Temple Mount

Ultra-dispensationalist publications such as those from the Open Bible Trust make few references to the various biblical covenants. Indeed, one of the nineteenth century founders of dispensationalism, John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), vehemently attacked Reformed covenant theology.

Darby denounced the seventeenth century Westminster Confession of Faith’s doctrines of God’s covenants and law as nonsensical, mischievous fables and fundamentally erroneous.

But it is interesting to note that the Westminster Confession itself employs the term ‘dispensation’: ‘This covenant [of grace] was differently administered in the time of the law and in the time of the gospel … There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations’ (VII, 5-6).

So the error is not in the word ‘dispensation’ itself, but in the content wrongly poured into it by dispensationalists.

Erroneous assertions 

In his book True or false? Comments and queries about the New Testament (Open Bible Trust, 2014), Michael Penny has written an article called ‘The New Covenant belongs to Gentiles’. It is this article that I want to comment on in some detail.

After expressing surprise at hearing a lot about covenants, particularly the New Covenant, in Gentile Christian churches today, Michael Penny makes several erroneous assertions.

He says, ‘Even though Pentecost is a Jewish feast and what is recorded in Acts 2 is a fulfilmentof Leviticus 22, many Christians believe that the church of today started at Pentecost’. In fact, Acts 2 records the descent of the Holy Spirit onto the disciples as the fulfilment of Joel 2:28-32 and of Jesus’ prophetic promise in Acts 1:8. This is why the Christian church has ever since celebrated her ‘birthday’ at Pentecost (or Whitsun).

The author asserts that ‘the Jew dominates the Acts of the Apostles’. Hardly ‘dominates’, surely, when a more accurate title of that book would be the ‘Acts of the Holy Spirit’?

As frequently occurs in dispensational literature, a list of New Testament epistles is given in the article which the author insists (contrary to a majority of conservative evangelical scholars) were written solely to Jews. Romans 9:2-5 is quoted and, from this text, it is deduced that ‘all the covenants in Scripture, apart from the Noahic, were made with the people of Israel, including the New Covenant’, adding that ‘many deny that [the covenants belong to Israel]’.

Misleading allegation

This is a misleading allegation. For, while most Christians certainly deny that all the covenants belonged exclusively to ethnic Israel, the allegation misses the important fact, emphasised by Paul, that the covenant with Abraham was made before he was circumcised, and therefore while not, strictly speaking, an Israelite. The first ‘Israelite’ was Jacob, Abraham’s grandson (Genesis 17; Romans 3:9-11).

After quoting Jeremiah 31:31-34, the article notes that the New Covenant is yet to be made with ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah (v.31), not with Gentiles’, adding that this covenant is to be made ‘with the same peoplewho broke the first [Mosaic] covenant, not with Gentiles who had no part in the first covenant and so have no part in the second one’.

We are told that people who believe that the words of Christ in Luke 22:20 (‘this is my blood of the New Covenant’) announced the bringing in of the New Covenant are wrong. Why? Because ‘during the Acts period, the Jews, both Christians and non-Christians, still observed the law of Moses, the Old Covenant; and we read in Hebrews 8:13 that the Old Covenant was obsolete and ageing and was “soon to disappear”.’

‘This verse’, the writer claims, ‘shows us clearly that the New Covenant had not yet come in; the Old Covenant was still operating’.     

Inexcusable misinterpretation

This leads to an inexcusable misinterpretation of Hebrews 8:8 (‘but God found fault with the people and said, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a New Covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah’) in the comment: ‘This shows clearly that the New Covenant had not yet come in, and in Hebrews 8:8 we see the writer to the Hebrews still using the future tense [emphasis mine]to describe when it would come in.

‘Thus the New Covenant was still in the future, and it still is with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It was not made with Gentiles and it is not with the church of this age of grace, the body of Christ’.

Such deplorable mishandling of the biblical text results from a naive hyper-literalism (for example, in this case, Israel/Jews are alleged to always mean only ethnic Jews, despite Romans 2:28; Galatians 3:29; 6:16; Philippians 3:3; Colossians 2:11). Furthermore, the reason for the future tenses in Hebrews 8:8-12 (‘I will make’) is simply that these verses contain a verbatim quotation of Jeremiah 31:31-34.

These words were given by the Lord to Jeremiah near the end of Zedekiah’s reign in c. 590 BC, which was about 660 years before the epistle to the Hebrews was written! How else could Jeremiah have referred to God’s chosen people?

Having mentioned that during the Acts period the apostles were called ‘ministers of the New Covenant’ (2 Corinthians 3:6), the article continues incorrectly that ‘they preached that the New Covenant could have come in, if Israel accepted Jesus as their Messiah, but they didn’t’ [emphasis mine].

Present reality

New Testament Greek has a rich variety of verb forms and the tenses of the original language of the relevant verses in Hebrews 7-10 and 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 prove beyond doubt that the New Covenant mediated by the Lord Jesus was already then a present reality (c. AD 64–80). ‘We have this ministry’, writes Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:1, and ‘Christ is the mediator of the New Covenant’ (Hebrews 9:15).

One of the ‘better’ things in Hebrews is a better covenant, Hebrews 7:22, of which ‘Jesus has become the guarantee’ (‘surety’). The Greek verb form here (gegonen) means a present status.

As Westcott observes: ‘Here the … assurance is not simply of the future, but of that which is present though unseen’. Hebrews 10:29 (‘Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace?’) makes sense only if the New Covenant was then in operation.

In 2 Corinthians 3:9,11 we read concerning the New Covenant, ‘How much more glorious is [Greek present tense, “abounds”] the ministry that brings righteousness’, and, ‘How much greater is [Greek present tense, “what remains”] the glory of that which lasts’.

2 Corinthians 3:7 is also very significant, revealing that even in Moses’ day the Old Covenant was ‘fading away’ (Greek, ‘made useless’, ‘to be abolished’).

According to Hebrews 8:13, the status of the Old Covenant already in Jeremiah’s day was old — obsolete (Greek, ‘abrogated’), not merely ‘soon to disappear’. The Greek of the AV’s ‘vanishing’ also means ‘destroyed’.

Mr Penny’s article continued: ‘Part of this New Covenant is that God is going to write the law, the Mosaic law, on the hearts of people; that is, upon the hearts of Judah and Israel, not upon the hearts of Gentiles, who have never been part of the Mosaic law’.

He justifies his contention that it is obvious that the New Covenant has never been in operation, by saying that in the Gospel period the Jews rejected Jesus and had him crucified, and they rejected the ministry of the apostles during the Acts period.

This is not wholly accurate, however, because about 3000 Jews were converted as early as Acts 2, a further 2000 Jews in Acts 4, and many more were added to the church throughout the Acts period.     

Spiritual Israel

Since today less than 10 per cent of the people in many countries, including Israel, know the Lord, we are told that ‘we do not live in a time when “they all will know Me, from the least to the greatest”’. Ensuring that no one misses his point, the author adds: ‘No! There has never been a time when the New Covenant has been in operation’.

That the majority of Jews rejected Jesus during the period of the Gospels and the Acts seems beside the point to Mr Penny, as also the obvious fact that only a minority of the world’s population today are true born-again Christians.

Both the Old and the New Covenants were made with God’s people, not with the whole human race. At Sinai, the Mosaic covenant was made with Israel, as God’s chosen, elect people who had recently been redeemed and freed from slavery and oppression in Egypt.

The New Covenant is made with all those (Jew or Gentile) who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, whose precious blood shed at Calvary secured eternal redemption and ratified the New Covenant. Such believers, the new spiritual Israel, do indeed ‘all know’ the Lord ‘from the least to the greatest’.

Moses, the mediator of the first covenant, was faithful as a servant in God’s house (meaning, amongst God’s people), whereas Christ, the mediator of the New Covenant, was not only faithful as a son over God’s house, but also as its owner and builder!  

Serious error

So, exactly when will the New Covenant come in? According to the writer, it will commence when Christ returns, ‘when he gathers his elect … and all Israel will be saved’ (Matthew 24:31; Romans 11:26).

He asserts that the Old Covenant disappeared at the end of Acts and was replaced by the ‘Age of Grace’, not by the New Covenant.

That the New Covenant will allegedly not be in being until the Second Coming and inauguration of the millennium is typical of a futurist, naively literalist interpretation of Old Testament prophecy concerning Israel, that necessitates absolutely literal fulfilment of the detail.

Moreover, to teach that, during the millennium, the newly converted nation of Israel will resume animal sacrifices is an extremely serious error, as Hebrews 6:20; 7:27; and 9-10 make clear.

Such wrong doctrine is explicitly refuted in all evangelical Protestant creeds. For example, Article 31 of The 39 Articles — concerning ‘The one oblation of Christ finished upon the cross’ — states: ‘The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual, and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone’.

The author is an evangelical Christian who was previously an ultra-dispensationalist. He was a quality control chemist for 34 years and then freelance proof-reader, before taking early retirement in 1992.