Understanding Dispensationalism: The Importance of Seeing the Difference

Dispensationalism is a term used to describe a theological framework that emphasizes the differences in God’s dealings with people throughout history. The word “dispensation” refers to a period of time during which God’s plan for humanity unfolds in a particular way. In this article, we’ll explore the importance of seeing the differences between the prophetic program that focuses on Israel and the mystery of Christ as presented by Paul. We’ll also see how this understanding affects our view of sanctification and rewards.

The Origin of Dispensationalism

The dispensationalists were raised up to establish the Church more fully in grace by seeing the difference between the prophetic program which focuses on Israel and the mystery of Christ as presented by Paul (Ephesians 3:1-12). One of the primary things that the Brethren saw was that that the Bema seat, which is the judgment seat of Christ, was a mystery. It was not revealed until Paul came because it belonged to a group of people who were a mystery hidden until Paul taught the truth he received concerning the revelation of the mystery (1 Corinthians 2:7-8, Colossians 1:24-27).

Paul’s language, which describes his ministry, gives us the origin of the phrase “dispensationalism”:

Col 1:25-27 Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; (26) Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: (27) To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory:

Eph 3:1-5 For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, (2) If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: (3) How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words, (4) Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) (5) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit…

The Importance of Making a Distinction

The main point of dispensationalism, as with the Plymouth Brethren such as Darby, CH Mackintosh, Newell, and others, was to make a distinction between the prophetic program that focuses on Israel and the mystery of Christ as presented by Paul. We view this as a logical outworking of the Reformation, as the saints were struggling to understand the implications of justification by faith, not only for our eternal destiny, but also for how we are to live. The question was, “What is the believer’s rule of life? Is it some grace and some law, or is it all of grace in Christ?” The Brethren saw that continuing to believe that the Church was Israel and allegorizing her promises regarding the kingdom, the Church was, in effect, keeping itself under the law as a rule of life. They were not concerned with prophecy as much as they were concerned with what they called “positional truth” – our position in Christ because of our identification with Him in His death, resurrection, and ascension.

There is what we may call historic truth; there is moral truth; there is dispensational truth; and there is what is known as ‘positional truth,’ that is, truth which has to do with the position of the Christian, with his standing in Christ, with the privileges that are his as a member of the body of Christ, and with his relationship to the Father and to the Son.”

(William Kelly, “Notes on the Epistle to the Galatians,” 1862)

They understood that this was the distinct revelation that was brought through Paul’s ministry, not anticipated in any of the prophetic writings of the Old Testament, which focus on the destiny of Israel, because the Church itself was a mystery hidden in God. Again, when we do not make this distinction (which comes from an understanding of the unique mandate of Paul’s ministry), we tend to believe that even though we are justified by faith, our rule of life is law.

The Christian is, beyond all controversy, under grace, and not under law; and it is only as he clearly apprehends this grand truth, that he can really serve God. But the question may be asked, how is it that so many believers, who hold the doctrine of justification by faith, do not enter into the liberty wherewith Christ has made them free, and do not serve God in the energy of the Holy Ghost? The answer is not far to seek. They are not clear as to the distinction between the position of the Church of God and that of the Jewish people; and hence they imagine that the law is still binding on the believer as a rule of life. They fail to apprehend that the Gospel of the grace of God, as unfolded in the ministry of the apostle Paul, is a distinct and independent revelation, not anticipated in the types and prophecies of the Old Testament, and not coming in until the Jewish people were set aside for a time.”

(C.H. Mackintosh, “Notes on the Book of Exodus,” 1862)

The Example of the Judgment Seats

Failing to distinguish between the Church and Israel can have practical implications for how believers view their judgment. The confusion can lead to the merging of various judgments, including the Great White Throne, the Judgment of the sheep and goat nations in Matthew 25, and Paul’s teachings on the testing of works. This creates a sense of fear and uncertainty among believers who may anticipate punishment, whippings, or even outer darkness at the end of their race, despite believing in justification by faith. They may worry about answering for every idle word at the Great White Throne judgment or question their salvation if they haven’t fulfilled certain works described in Matthew 24 and 25, which relate to the judgment of the nations when Christ establishes the kingdom.The example of the judgment seats being confused and abstracted into one becomes a source of confusion and condemnation to Christians. Our judgment seat, called the Bema, is a celebration of the glorification of the sons of God, the Body of Christ, God’s masterpiece (eph 2:6-8, Eph 1:5).

The Plymouth Brethren began to see that the Bema seat, which is the judgment seat of Christ, was a mystery not revealed until Paul came because it belongs to a group of people who were a mystery hidden until Paul taught the truth he received concerning the revelation of the mystery (1 Corinthians 2:7-8, Colossians 1:24-27).

The judgment seat of Christ (bema) is a distinctive and precious doctrine, which was hidden from Old Testament times, as it is clearly indicated in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8 and Colossians 1:24-27. It is a judgment of the believer’s works, with a view to reward or loss of reward, but it is not a judgment of sins, which were all judged at the cross of Calvary.

(Edward Dennett, “The Epistle to the Philippians,” 1898)

The Bema seat is a celebration of the glorification of the Church, which is God’s workmanship. It takes place when we are presented to the Lord as His bride, His body, His fullness, and the many sons of God who have been conformed to the image of Christ and glorified. The BEMA was a festal gathering, not a scene of judgment with reference to sin. It was typified by the Greek Olympics, which were associated with athletic prowess, reward, and celebration.”The BEMA actually has two parts, the first was when Pilate judged Jesus and sat at the bema seat, declared him innocent, but was demanded of the crowds to crucify him. He exchanged Barabbas the criminal and substituted Christ in his place, and that was the procedure and judgment that led to Christ paying for our sins, being chastened with the “rod of men” in fulfillment of the Davidic covenant that said he will be chastened with the rod of men if he sins, but the mercies would not depart from him. He was chastened there beginning with his scourgings, and it was not for his sins, but for ours. Our sins were dealt with at the first part of the BEMA, where he appeared once according to Hebrews to deal with sin, but will come again without sin unto salvation to those who look for him (Hebrews 9:24-28).

The Bema Seat has no reference to sin, although not understanding grace and living and teaching a mixture of law and grace damages the building and can lead to “suffering loss” because what you built will be burnt up as wood, hay, and stubble (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). But even those works are not going to be inspected by the Lord, and no one is going to be punished. It will all be burnt off and behind us when we see the Lord, and we’ll be glad it’s gone. We will suffer its loss as Paul says, “I suffer the loss of all things and count them as dung that I may win Christ” (Philippians 3:8). But for those who operate consistently in grace, they refresh others, and their encouragement becomes a writing of the New Testament ministry in their hearts and the hearts of those that are mutually comforted, and this is a remaining weight of glory that will be revealed in that day and is considered “building with gold, silver, and precious stones” (1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20). The satisfaction we have partaking of that mutual fellowship is in itself a reward as will be the glorious edifice that is revealed in that day when we see our smiling Christ (Hebrews 9:28, 1 John 3:2).

“The Judgment Seat of Christ is, in the fullest sense, a judgment of the works of believers; but it is not, in any sense, a judgment of their sins. The former, the believer will have to give an account of; the latter, the blood of Christ has perfectly blotted out, and God has pledged Himself to remember them no more forever. The works of the believer will be brought to light, and subjected to the searching scrutiny of Him who cannot be deceived, and who will bring everything to light, that is, connected with our service or our motives; but every sin, and every defect in the believer’s history, will have been forever put away, by the precious blood of Christ, so that there cannot be, on God’s part, the slightest reference to them, in the Judgment.”

CH Mackintosh, in his book, “Notes on the Book of Leviticus,” writes:

As we study the Plymouth Brethren’s insights on dispensationalism, it’s important to remember the context in which they lived and wrote. They were reacting to a spiritual landscape that had been dominated by legalism and works-based righteousness for centuries. As a result, their view of the Bema Seat, the judgment seat of Christ, still carried some heaviness and a sense of accountability for works. However, they also saw it as a celebration of the glorification of the Church, the masterpiece of God, and recognized that it had no reference to sin (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). As we stand on their shoulders and benefit from what they learned, we can speak with greater boldness and clarity about the implications of these truths for our lives and for the Church today.

The Destiny of the Church

This people who look for him right now form  a heavenly company, distinct from Israel. They are members of his body, and the Pauline truths govern their rule of life. These truths concern their identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, their union with him, their acceptance and access in Him to the father, and their heavenly position at the right hand of God, (hid with Christ in God).  Theway they live is summarized in Galatians 2:19-22:

Gal 2:19  For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. 

Gal 2:20  I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. 

Gal 2:21  I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

The destiny of this people is neither the Great White Throne Judgment or the gathering of the sheep nations or the restoration of Israel at the establishing of the Davidic throne but is to be caught up with those who are said to be “in Christ” (again a mystery term introduced by Paul) to meet him in the air, having been transfigured and glorified. And they will return with him when he comes. This happens before the Matthew 25 judgment eschatologically speaking, and again was a mystery. This was the beginning of seeing that Christ’s reward is the inheritance and salvation of the believer, and that our rule of life, from beginning to end, is grace.

Standing in the Light of Grace

Previous to the dispensationalists, even though Luther was able to distinguish between law and gospel, he still looked to the law as a rule of life and lived a life of “repentance” for his failure to keep it. Knowing he was not justified by law but still believing he was obligated to keep it put him in miserable straits, and this came from the failure to make a full distinction concerning Paul’s ministry and what he revealed.

For example in his preface to Romans luther said:

“Even after we have been justified and reconciled with God through Christ, the old Adam in us remains and seeks to make himself righteous by means of the Law. Therefore we must constantly watch and pray, lest we fall back into the error of seeking righteousness by the Law. For although the Gospel sets us free from the curse and condemnation of the Law, it does not set us free from the Law itself, nor does it allow us to live lawlessly, but rather it teaches us to live a new and godly life in accordance with the Law of God.”

Most people have been led to believe that dispensationalism is about prophecy charts. It is true that the brethren realized that the promises for Israel were yet future and that their covenant, the new covenant, is yet to be fulfilled, and the Church is not covenant parties but testament heirs. They studied the prophecies to catalog the promises that belong to Israel and distinguish them from the heavenly position, destiny, and nature of the Church to bring her more fully under grace. They studied the rapture, not as a hobby to determine “when it might happen,” but to describe it as it is laid out in scripture: the Lord presenting the trophy of His work to the Father, the many sons of God, who actually were the eternal purpose of God hidden in His heart, the Church.

“Dispensationalism is not a system of prophetic interpretation or a method of predicting the future, but a framework for understanding God’s progressive revelation of His plan of redemption.” – J.N. Darby (Synopsis of the Books of the Bible, Vol. 1, p. 50)

“The church is not a continuation of Israel, but an entirely new and distinct entity created by God’s grace.” – C.H. Mackintosh (Notes on the Book of Exodus, p. 198)
“The rapture is not a doctrine to be speculated about or debated, but a precious truth to be cherished and anticipated with joy and hope.” – C.H. Mackintosh (Miscellaneous Writings, Vol. 2, p. 143)


In summary, dispensationalism is not just about prophecy charts or future events. It is a framework for understanding the distinction between the prophetic program that focuses on Israel and the mystery of Christ as presented by Paul. This distinction especially impacts the believer’s view of sanctification and rewards because when we do not make this distinction, we tend to believe that even though we are justified by faith, our rule of life is law.

“Dispensationalism teaches that our rule of life is grace from beginning to end, and that our destiny is to be caught up with those who are ‘in Christ’ to meet Him in the air (1 Thessalonians 4:17), having been transfigured and glorified. Eschatologically speaking, the Bema Seat is a celebration of the glorification of the Church, the masterpiece of God. It occurs when we are presented to the Lord as His bride, His body, His fullness, and the many sons of God who have been conformed to the image of Christ and glorified (Ephesians 1:5, 1:23; 2:6-7)

Dispensationalism is a framework that helps us understand the purpose and destiny of the Church, as well as our role in God’s plan of redemption. It is a tool to help us rightly divide the Word of Truth and to understand the unique revelations given to Paul concerning the mystery of Christ. By making a clear distinction between the prophetic program and the mystery of Christ, we can more fully appreciate the grace of God and live according to our heavenly position and destiny. We can rejoice in the fact that our reward is the inheritance and salvation of the believer, and that our rule of life is grace, not law. Dispensationalism is not just an academic exercise, but a practical and life-changing way of understanding the Word of God.

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