Main Menu
Doctrinal Studies



PD Summary
Pro-Disp 101
Pro-Disp 102

PD In Depth
Kingdom Hope in the OT
Kingdom Hope in Psalms
Kingdom Hope in Gospels
Kingdom Hope in Parables
That Prophet
The Abrahamic Covenant
Heaven Destiny Origin
Israel's Role
The Mystery Revealed
Paul & the Mystery
Church in the OT - I
Church in the OT - II
Church in the OT - III
Kingdom Hope in Hebrews
Daniel's 70 Weeks
Jesus & David's Throne
Excessive Dispensationalism
Dispensationalism's Future

PD Debate
Intro: Couch vs. Warner
I. Opening - Warner
I. Rebuttal - Couch
I. Response - Warner
I. Closing - Couch
II. Opening - Couch
II. Rebuttal - Warner
II. Response - Couch
II. Closing - Warner
PFRS Home > Doctrinal Studies > Progressive Dispensationalism >

The Dangers of Excessive Dispensationalism
Copyright © Tim Warner

A serious difficulty in traditional dispensational thinking is what to do with the four Gospels. Dispensationalists unanimously agree that Paul's Epistles apply directly to the Church. Most would also include the General Epistles and Revelation. There is by no means a consensus among dispensationalists regarding how much of Acts or the Gospels applies directly to the Church. At one end of the dispensational spectrum are those who see the Church beginning with Jesus' calling the first disciples. At the other end are those who see the present dispensation beginning towards the end of the book of Acts. These see the ministry of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles as something entirely distinct from the present dispensation. Some, on the fringe of ultradispensationalism, do not even accept the Great Commission or water baptism. They associate these with the Twelve and Jesus' ministry, and accept only Paul's epistles as containing "Church doctrine." (They usually do not even accept all of Paul's teaching, because Paul taught on baptism and the proper use of spiritual gifts, which many consider obsolete.)

Dispensationalism is a structure that makes sense and order out of seemingly conflicting ideas in Scripture. Without some form of dispensationalism, the Scriptures would be self contradictory. Take the food laws for example. God told Noah, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things." [Gen. 9:3]. Yet, the kosher Laws God gave to Israel forbid their eating 'unclean' animals. But, to Christians, Paul wrote, "For every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: For it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer." [1 Tim. 4:4,5].

As is quite apparent from this example, without a system to explain such apparent discrepancies, the Bible becomes impossible to decipher.

Essentially, the primary premise of dispensationalism is that God has not always dealt with mankind under the same rules, or program. There has been a progression of programs since creation. Contrary to charges made by opponents of this system, the basic dispensational principle is not a human system superimposed on the Word of God. It is explicitly taught in the Scripture. There are a number of Scriptures which demonstrate a change in God's program. Here are a couple of examples.

John 4
19 The woman saith unto him, Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.
20 Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.
21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.

Hebrews 8
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

Both of these Scriptures demonstrate dynamic use of the basic principle on which dispensationalism rests. God has dealt with mankind differently during various periods of history. His economy for dealing with man in one period eventually gives way to a new economy. This has occurred on several notable occasions in Scripture. The flood, the giving of the Law, the New Covenant, and the Millennial Kingdom are all clear examples of dispensational changes. In each of these cases God's dealings with man has (or will) changed dramatically.

The differences of opinion among dispensationalists stem from the application of the basic dispensational principle to the Scriptures. On what grounds can we say a new dispensation has begun? Some, when encountering seemingly contradictory ideas in Scripture, such as Paul's emphasis on grace and James' emphasis on works, immediately infer separate dispensations for Paul's and James' ministries. Others try to harmonize this type of difficulty within a single dispensation. The approach one takes, whether distinguishing or harmonizing passages, has far reaching implications toward the degree of dispensational distinctions one finally adopts. In other words, the tendency to harmonize Scripture leads to fewer dispensations, while the tendency to draw distinctions leads to more dispensations.

The degree of dispensationalism has a huge effect on practical Christian living. All Scripture was written to specific audiences. We need to correctly decide how much Scripture is directly applicable to us. After all, the basic question that must be answered from Scripture is, "How does it apply to me?" The degree of dispensationalism plays a direct role in making these judgments. The more distinctions we make between alleged dispensational groups, the less Scripture we have that directly applies to us. Conversely, the fewer dispensations we see, the more of the Scripture directly applies to us. If we accept no dispensational distinctions at all, we are bound by the Old Covenant, including the law of the Sabbath, animal sacrifices, the kosher laws, and the death penalty for such offenses as dishonoring one's parents. At the other extreme are hyperdispensationalists who recognize only Romans through Philemon as having direct application to the Church today. For them, the Old Testament, the Gospels, most of Acts, and Hebrews through Revelation, were intended for other past or future dispensations and are not binding on us today.

But, if only Paul's epistles apply directly to us, we are not bound at all by the teachings of Christ! How can we claim to be 'Christians?' Shouldn't we be called 'Paulians?' Isn't a 'Christian' a follower of Christ? Therefore, a real problem emerges regarding what to do with the teachings of Jesus.

The best example of this problem is the 'Sermon on the Mount.' In Matthew five through seven Jesus gave a series of commandments to His disciples. Many, in the mainstream of dispensationalism, teach these commandments belong to another dispensation, implying they are not binding on us. The old Scofield Bible demonstrates this kind of thinking in its notes attached to this sermon. "...the sermon on the mount gives neither the privilege, nor the duty of the Church."[page 1,000]. If this sermon does not apply to the Church, one needn't be too concerned about it. On the other hand, if Jesus intended these commandments to be followed by all Christians, and if dispensationalists are relegating it to another dispensation, they are guilty of undermining the gospel and leading Christians astray! Jesus said to His disciples, "if you love me, keep my commandments."

A second important consideration is the impact of dispensationalism on eschatology. If the ministry and teaching of Christ, as found in the Gospels, directly applies to the Church, then the Olivet Discourse [Matt. 24, Mark 13] must also apply to the Church. The problem is, in this discourse Jesus answered the disciples' question about His second coming by outlining a series of events His followers would endure. This included the Great Tribulation. He clearly placed the gathering together of His elect after the tribulation, [Matt. 24:29-31]. It is apparent that a strong continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the Church age weighs heavily in favor of the posttribulation rapture position. Conversely, the clearer the distinction between the ministry of Jesus and the Church age, the stronger the logical foundation for the pretribulation rapture position. The same holds true for Revelation. The sharper the distinction between "Church saints" and "Tribulation saints," the easier it is to suppose a pretribulation rapture between Revelation three and four. Conversely, the more unified the saints, the more difficult it is to envision a rapture where the Scripture does not explicitly place one. The bottom line is simply this. The heavier the basic principle of dispensationalism is applied to Scripture, the more likely the pretribulation rapture position appears. And, the lighter this principle is applied, the more likely the posttribulation rapture position appears.

The degree to which we apply dispensational distinctions must be based on clear biblical evidence. As Bible believing Christians, we must have sound biblical authority for what we believe and teach. Too often we let the end justify the means. Our thinking becomes biased toward a doctrinal position we find attractive. We might lean towards a certain position because it is held by people we respect, or because the opposing position is unpopular, and embracing it might bring the wrath of our peers. For example, if we want to believe in a particular rapture position, we might be tempted to accept whatever theology will get us there, even if we have to fudge a little here and there. The same holds true for other theological issues like Calvinism vs. Arminianism. As Christians, we can often detect this kind of biased thinking among scientists who approach the origin of the universe from a predetermined rejection of God. As human beings, we are also quite capable of kidding ourselves. While we can often spot biased thinking in others, it is very difficult to detect our own biased thinking. Truth can only be found by being entirely objective. We must hold truth as all important regardless of the repercussions. This requires a genuine willingness to abandon long cherished views, and embrace unpopular positions, given adequate proof.

There is only one way to be objective regarding dispensational distinctions. We must have clear statements from Scripture indicating a dispensational change before we assume one. We cannot invent dispensations on the basis of apparent doctrinal difficulties. There are apparent doctrinal difficulties even within a single writer's works, often within the same book. For a good example of this compare Romans 8:35-39 with Romans 11:20-22. Are we to suppose a dispensational change between Romans eight and Romans eleven? Obviously, the apparent conflict in these passages arises from our lack of understanding and our own doctrinal bias, not from a dispensational distinction. We are not free to make divisions where the Scriptures do not. If we use doctrinal difficulties as license to devise dispensational distinctions, we could come up with an infinite number of dispensations. This would effectively render the vast majority of Scripture irrelevant to us! This is just as destructive as denying all of the Bible is the Word of God. Making dispensational distinctions without having clear statements of Scripture indicating a change, is the equivalent to making the Word of God subjective to our theology, rather than subjecting ourselves to its authority. If dispensationalists would be consistently objective by holding to this criterion, we could save the Body of Christ much confusion. Because we have frequently allowed the end to justify the means, confusion reigns among dispensationalists.

The most difficult problem for dispensationalists is what to do with the Gospels. If we take the position that they contain "Church doctrine" how do we explain doctrinal difficulties that arise between the teaching of Jesus and Paul? A good example is the rich young ruler who asked Jesus, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" To which Jesus answered, "Keep the commandments." Some dispensationalists would point to this apparent conflict with Ephesians 2:8,9 by concluding Jesus' ministry was a separate dispensation. Others might try to find a way to reconcile Jesus' statement by saying Jesus was simply trying to point out to this young man that he had not kept the spirit of the Law. This may be true but it does not resolve the problem. Jesus answered a direct question about salvation by referring him to the Old Covenant. Doesn't this imply that the Old Covenant was still in force to some degree?

We stated earlier that clear statements must be our source of authority. What does the Bible say about a dispensational change from the Old Covenant to the New?

Luke 16
16 The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it.

Here Jesus made a statement indicating that something new had begun. When John the Baptist began his ministry the Old Covenant began to be supplanted by the preaching of the Kingdom of God. The fact that John was to prepare the way for Christ shows a transition was in progress rather than a clear distinction. John did not belong to another dispensation as is commonly taught.

John 1
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.
7 The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe.

John was sent to proclaim Jesus, and salvation through Him alone! John the Baptist's own words show that his Gospel message was essentially the same as the Gospel message today, that of salvation through faith in Christ alone.

John 3
35 The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.
36 He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

However, even though the Gospel began to be preached with the appearance of John the Baptist, the Old Covenant did not expire for the Jewish people on the day John began preaching.

Hebrews 8
13 In that he saith, A new covenant, he hath made the first old. Now that which decayeth and waxeth old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews, written only a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, clearly indicates that while the Old Covenant was obsolete, it had not yet entirely expired. How is it that the Old Covenant was still in effect to some degree many years after the New Covenant was established? This is only possible if there was an overlapping of the Old Covenant and the New. Jesus' answer to the woman of Samaria also shows that the Old Covenant was still in force on the Jewish people, yet He offered her salvation apart from the Old Covenant.

John 4
21 Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father.
22 Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.
23 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.

Many dispensationalists have recognized this transitional period. Yet any transitional time where dispensations overlap creates a serious problem for interpreters. Most of the New Testament was written within this transitional period. How are we to know what is for us and what was intended for the transitional period only? What do we do with Jesus' answer to the rich young ruler? If we reject it as not for us, what is for us, and on whose authority? This is the dispensational paradox.

It would be a terrible thing indeed if God left us to muddle through the Gospels never being entirely sure what applies to us and what does not. But, Jesus gave us the key to determining, on His authority, what is for us and what is not for us in the Gospels. This key is extremely important for dispensationalists. It is the key that unlocks the "mystery" Paul wrote about. This key has far reaching implications into all areas of theology. It is the most important piece of information available to anyone seeking to properly understand the teachings of our Savior, our Lord, and the founder of our Faith.


Matthew 28
19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:
20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

The Great Commission is still in force today. This is clear from the words, "even unto the end of the world (age)." Notice that a part of the Great Commission is to teach new converts to observe everything Jesus taught His disciples. He did not say, teach new converts to observe what He told the Scribes, Pharisees, the crowds, or even the rich young ruler. He told them to teach everything He specifically taught them, His disciples. Since the fulfillment of the Great Commission includes the entire Church age, Jesus commanded the disciples to teach Gentile Christians to observe everything He taught them, as recorded in the Gospel narratives. This must mean that all of Jesus' teaching directed specifically to the disciples is "Church doctrine." Since the disciples are dead, and we have succeeded them in assuming the task of world evangelism, we must also obey Christ's last command. We must consider all of the material from the Gospel accounts, directed specifically to the disciples, as applicable to us today.

With this criterion, it is a simple task to read the Gospel accounts and decide what is Church doctrine and what is transitional. Since all four Gospels were written as a narrative on the life and ministry of Christ, all we have to do is follow the writer's narration to see whom Jesus was addressing. The Sermon on the Mount is the first glaring example of this kind of teaching. Jesus called His newly chosen disciples aside and began to teach them, [Matt. 5:1,2]. Other notable examples are the Humility Discourse, [Matt. 18], the Olivet Discourse, [Matt. 24], and the Upper Room Discourse, [John 13-17]. Some other famous discourses do not fit this criterion, including the Bread of Life Discourse, [John 6], and the Good Shepherd Discourse, [John 10].

Even in a casual reading of the Gospels, it is apparent that Jesus did not treat everyone alike. He spoke to the crowds, individuals, and the Scribes and Pharisees, often referring them to the Law of Moses. He also took His disciples aside and taught them privately. In these cases, He taught New Covenant doctrine.

Mark 4
1 And he began again to teach by the sea side: and there was gathered unto him a great multitude, so that he entered into a ship, and sat in the sea; and the whole multitude was by the sea on the land.
2 And he taught them many things by parables, and said unto them in his doctrine,
3 Hearken; Behold, there went out a sower to sow: ...
10 And when he was alone, they that were about him with the twelve asked of him the parable.
11 And he said unto them, Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables:
12 That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. ...
33 And with many such parables spake he the word unto them, as they were able to hear it.
34 But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples.

Jesus, working within the context of the Jewish nation and the Old Covenant that was still in force on the Jewish people, began revealing the New Covenant. He did not directly teach New Covenant doctrine to the crowds, or the Jewish leaders. He spoke in parables. Yet when He was alone with the disciples, He taught them New Covenant doctrine. It was not His purpose to convert all of Judaism, but to call out of Judaism a remnant. He then taught His "little flock" Church doctrine, preparing them to be missionaries to the whole world. Jesus did this for three years. The night before the crucifixion, as Jesus passed the cup to these twelve men, He said; "This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you." [Luke 22:20]. Jesus confirmed the New Covenant the next day spilling His blood so that sinners could be redeemed. After the resurrection, Jesus instructed His disciples to preach the gospel to all nations until the end of the age, making His powerful statement which establishes the criterion and authority for applying Jesus' teaching to ourselves, "teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." If we take Jesus literally here, He was telling them, and is telling us, to teach all Christians to pattern their lives after His instruction to the disciples. The most comprehensive teaching being the Sermon on the Mount. If we do this, we are preparing them a good foundation for the difficult days ahead.

Notice how Jesus closed His Sermon on the Mount.

Matthew 7
24 Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock:
25 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.
26 And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
27 And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

One of the main reasons so many Christian's lives are falling apart today is because they lack the foundation that Jesus' teaching provides. When Jesus' teaching is relegated to another dispensation, Christianity suffers immensely. As we get closer to the return of Christ, things will get much worse. That's why Jesus warned us in the above verses to pattern our lives after the Sermon on the Mount.

The Sermon on the Mount contains 10 Commandments of Jesus to His followers, which form the basis of all other New Testament teaching on Christian living. Here's what Jesus said about His commandments, delivered to His disciples.

John 14
15 If ye love me, keep my commandments....
21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him....
23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.

John reinforced Jesus' remarks with the following words:

I John 2
3 And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.
4 He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.
5 But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him.
6 He that saith he abideth in him ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.

I John 3
22 And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.
24 And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.

I John 5
2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.
3 For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous.

II John 1
6 And this is love, that we walk after his commandments. This is the commandment, That, as ye have heard from the beginning, ye should walk in it.

Revelation 22
14 Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

Keeping His commandments does not refer to the Law of Moses as is commonly taught. All of these Scriptures have primary reference to the commandments Jesus gave directly to His disciples, to be passed along to us. Following Jesus' commandments is one of the most important thrusts of the New Testament.

For pastors and Bible teachers, this should be the main thrust of your discipling believers. First, by setting an example by living according to the Sermon on the Mount. And secondly, by teaching Jesus' commandments to His sheep. Today most Evangelical churches are primarily engaged in teaching deep theological concepts, or focused on evangelism. Both of these are good and essential. But the training the sheep need most of all is, Following Jesus 101. The foundation for this curriculum is the Sermon on the Mount.

Following the dispensational pack may bring man's approval. But, for those who want to be great in God's sight, and have the highest positions in the Kingdom to come, the top priority must be living and teaching this Sermon, and the rest of Jesus' teaching. Here's what Jesus said about teaching this sermon, and Jesus' commandments.

Matthew 5
19 Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Believers also need to be taught how to interpret the Scriptures themselves. The proper use of the dispensational principle is essential. The average church member has no clue how to determine if a passage directly applies to him. This is especially apparent in the Gospels. This condition exists partly because Bible teachers vary dramatically on their extent of dispensationalism. Church members are told this passage does or doesn't apply to them based on that teacher's personal view. Most do not understand why. They are almost never given the biblical criterion for making their own determinations. Consequently, many abandon personal study and rely solely on Church leaders for spiritual discernment and nourishment. This is a sad situation because it returns Evangelical Christianity back to a pre-Reformation condition, making the laity entirely dependent on the clergy, a human authority. The average believer can never mature in his understanding of the Word unless he has the biblical criterion, and can make his own judgments. The primary job of pastors, elders, and teachers, is equipping the saints.

Ephesians 4
11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers,
12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,
13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ;
14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting,
15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head-- Christ--

No doubt many dispensationalists will reject this key to proper biblical exegesis. Why? Not because Scripture can be cited to prove it is incorrect. Rather, they can see the implications regarding the Olivet Discourse. Much of the structure of present day dispensationalism gives the much needed license to "disqualify" the Olivet Discourse from "Church doctrine." If the instruction given to the disciples in this discourse was intended for all Christians, "even unto the end of the age," then the pretribulation rapture position needs serious reevaluation.

The unvarnished truth is this. Refusal to teach Christians to observe all of Jesus' instruction to the disciples is refusal to obey the Great Commission. Many dispensationalists, while trying to steer clear of the Olivet Discourse for eschatological reasons, in doing so, have deprived Christians of the very teaching that will make them strong and able to endure severe testing. That teaching is contained in the "commandments of Jesus," the Sermon on the Mount. That oversight can still be corrected, but the time is very, very, short.

Back to the top