The following “Question” was asked by a member of the congregation at Grace Community Church in Panorama City, California, and “Answered” by their pastor, John MacArthur Jr. It was transcribed from the tape, GC 70-16, titled “Bible Questions and Answers.” A copy of the tape can be obtained by writing, Word of Grace, P.O. Box 4000, Panorama City, CA 91412 or by dialing toll free 1-800-55-GRACE. Copyright John MacArthur Jr., All Rights Reserved.
What is dispensationalism? And what is your position, from Scripture, on the subject?
I will try to condense this because I don’t want to get too bogged down. Dispensationalism is a system. It is a system that got, sort of, out of control. I think it started out with a right understanding. The earliest and most foundational and helpful comprehension of dispensationalism was:
“That the Bible taught a unique place for Israel and that the Church could not fulfill God’s promises to Israel, therefore, there is a still a future and a kingdom involving the salvation and the restoration and the reign of the nation Israel (historical Jews).”
Dispensationalism at that level, (if we just take that much of it, and that’s all I want to take of it, that’s where I am on that), dispensationalism became the term for something that grew out of that and got carried away because it got more, and more, and more compounded. Not only was there a distinction between the Church and Israel, but there was a distinction between the new covenant for the Church, and the new covenant for Israel. And then there could become a distinction between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven; and there could become a distinction in the teaching of Jesus, between what He said for this age and what He said for the Millennial Age; and they started to even go beyond that; and then there were some books in the New Testament for the Church and some books in the New Testament for the Jews, and it just kept going and going and going until it became this very confounded kind of system. You see it, for example, in a Scofield Bible and other places. If you want to see it in graphic form . . . in a book by Clarence Larkin . . . and all kinds of charts and all kinds of things that try to explain this very complex system.
I really believe that they got carried away and started imposing on Scripture things that aren’t in Scripture. For example, traditionally, dispensationalism says, “The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) has nothing to do with us, so we don’t need to worry about it.” When I went through the Sermon on the Mount in writing my commentary, as well, I pointed out how foolish that is.
So let me tell you, I have been accused through the years of being a “leaky dispensationalist” and I suppose I am. So let me take you down to where I believe dispensationalism (I don’t use that term because it carries too much baggage), but let me take you down to what part of dispensationalism I affirm with all my heart–it is this: “That there is a real future for Israel,” and that has nothing to do with some kind of extrabiblical system. That has nothing to do with some developed sort of grid placed over Scripture. The reason that I believe you have to have a future for Israel is because that is what God promised. And you see it in Jeremiah, in Jeremiah, chapter 30, right on to the 33rd chapter, there is a future for Israel–there is a new covenant. Ezekiel, chapter 37, the Valley of Dry Bones is going to come alive–right? God’s going to raise them back up; God’s going to put a heart of flesh in and take the stony heart out and give them His Spirit. And you have the promise of a kingdom to Israel; you have the promise of a king; a David’s line; a Messiah; a throne in Jerusalem. You have the promise that there is going to be a real kingdom.
So my dispensationalism, if you want to use that term, is only that which can be defended exegetically or expositionally out of the Scripture, and by a simple clear interpretation of the Old Testament–it is obvious God promised a future kingdom to Israel. And when somebody comes along and says all the promises of the kingdom to Israel are fulfilled in the Church, the burden of proof is not on me, it’s on them. The simplest way that I would answer someone, who is what is called an “amillennialist,” or a “Covenant Theologian” that is, believing that there is one covenant and the Church is the new Israel, and Israel is gone, and there is no future for Israel–an amillennialism, meaning there is no kingdom for Israel; there is no future Millennial kingdom.
My answer to them is simply this, “You show me in that verse, in the Old Testament, which promises a kingdom to Israel, where it says that it really means the Church–show me!” Where does it say that? On what exegetical basis, what historical, grammatical, literal, interpretative basis of the Scripture can you tell me that when God says “Israel” He means the “Church”? Where does it say that? That’s where the burden of proof really lies. A straightforward understanding of the Old Testament leads to only one conclusion and that is that there is a kingdom for Israel. One way to understand that is to ask yourself a question. In the Old Testament . . . and if you wanted to get sort of a general sense of what the Old Testament is about, it’s simply about this–it reveals God and His Law, and it tells what’s going to happen to you if you obey it, and what’s going to happen to you if you don’t–and then it gives you a whole lot of illustrations of that–right? It reveals God and His Law and it tells you what’s going to happen to you if you obey it, and if you don’t–blessings and cursing.
Now, when Israel sinned, disobeyed God–what happened? Judgment, chastening, cursing, slaughter–was it literal? Yes. Was it Israel? Yes. So if Israel received all of the promised curses–literally–why would we assumed they would not receive the promised blessings literally, because some of those are in the same passages? And how can you say in this passage the cursing means literal Israel, but the blessings means the Church? There is no exegetical basis for that and you now have arbitrarily split the verse in half–you’ve given all the curses to Israel and all the blessing to the Church–on what basis exegetically?
I remember when I was in Jerusalem one time and we were in the convention center, right near the Knesset in Jerusalem, and I was there with Dr. Charles Feinberg, who was the keynote speaker, and David Ben-Gurion was there, who was the Premier of the Land of Israel at that time, and Teddy Kalik (sp.) who was the mayor of Jerusalem. We were sitting on the platform and an amillennialist had come to speak, it was the Jerusalem conference on prophecy, it was a tremendous event, and it was an amillennialist who got up to speak and he made the great announcement to David Ben-Gurion and to some of the Knesset members, and the mayor of Jerusalem, and all these Jewish dignitaries as well as the three thousand people that were there, that the promises to Israel in the Old Testament were being fulfilled in the Church. Now it is one thing to say that, but you don’t need to take a trip to Jerusalem to say that. There would be no kingdom . . . he preached on Isaiah 9:6, “The government will be upon His shoulders” (9:6ff), and he said that means the government of your life, and he’s talking about personal conversion here and so on and so forth. Well, I remember when that message was done, and I sat through it with Dr. Feinberg–Dr. Feinberg was, to put it mildly, “upset.” And his opening line, because he gave the next address, was, “So we have come all the way to Jerusalem to tell you that you get all the curses but the Gentile Church gets all the blessings.” And then he launched into a message about the promises of God.
If you take a literal approach to Scripture, then you cannot conclude anything other than that God has a future for Israel. What that means is that the Church is distinct from Israel, and when God is through with the Church, and takes the church to glory then He brings that time of Jacob’s distress, that we read about earlier, purges, redeems Israel, and the kingdom comes.
I don’t want to say any more than that about dispensationalism. I don’t believe there are two different kinds of salvation. I don’t believe there are two different covenants. I don’t believe there is a difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven. I don’t believe the Sermon of the Mount is for some future age. I don’t believe that you can hack up New Testament books–some for the Jews and some for the Church. I think that the only thing the Bible really holds up in that kind of system is that there is a future for Israel, and that’s an exegetical issue.
It is probably more than you wanted to know, but it is very, very important, because it preserves the literal interpretation of Scripture. Listen folks, once you’re not literal, then who’s to say? Right? I mean, then why not just say, “Well, Israel really means ‘left-handed Texans’–if it’s not exegetical–if it’s not in the text, it could mean ‘Canadians'” How can you say, if you can’t say what’s literally there?
Added to Bible Bulletin Board’s “MacArthur’s Questions and Answers” by: