The Dispensation of Grace in the Church Age
By Todd Baker
Warnings against the misuse, abuse, and neglect of God’s Grace:
The New Testament teaches that the present time that exists between the cross and the return of Christ is called “the dispensation of grace.” The NT Greek word for dispensation is OIKONOMIA. It means stewardship, household economy, or service rendered at a certain time (see 1 Corinthians 9:17;
Ephesians 1:10; 3:2; Colossians 1:25 where the word “dispensation” is found). Thus a dispensation is a particular period of time allotted by God to mankind. In a dispensation, God appoints a stewardship to humanity that requires and tests the ability of man’s obedience to a particular aspect of God’s will revealed to mankind that characterizes that specific age or dispensation (see Charles Ryrie’s book Dispensationalism Today for a detailed study of this topic).
The idea of dispensations within the revealed plan of God is the essence of a system of biblical interpretation and particular theology called Dispensationalism. This system is known for its literal interpretation of Scripture within responsible grammatical and historical limits that makes a clear distinction between national Israel and the Church; it also looks forward to the return of Christ to establish a literal 1,000 year kingdom over all the earth (Revelation 20:1-6).
The Dispensation of Grace period began at the cross and extends to the second coming of Jesus. During this present age, God is dealing with individual hearts according to His saving grace as revealed in the Gospel and therefore commands all people everywhere to repent of their unbelief and place their sole trust in the Savior Jesus Christ for salvation (see Acts 17:30).
Those who turn from sin and submit in faith to the Savior and Lord Jesus Christ will receive eternal salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and the eternal fellowship with God the Father through His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. There are two other terms theologians use for the Dispensation of Grace: (1) the Church Age and (2) the parenthetical dispensation. Concerning the Church Age, Jesus Christ is gathering out an elect body of believers from all the nations of the world to form His body, the Church (see Acts 15:14).
Christ is the pioneer builder of this great universal assembly. Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16:18, “I will build My Church.”
The Church is a New Testament reality and was not revealed during the Old Testament period. The Apostle Paul said it was a “mystery” hid in past ages not revealed to the sons of men (see Ephesians 3:3-6). This was hid in God from the beginning of the world until Jesus and the Apostles disclosed it in the present age that has lasted for almost 2,000 years. The mystery does not consist in the fact that Gentiles would be saved, for the Old Testament offers several examples of Gentile believers in the one true God (Rahab, Naaman, etc.), but that both Jew and Gentile were to be united together as one community by God to form the living church of Jesus Christ.
The present age is also called parenthetical because it falls between the First and Second Coming(s)of Jesus Christ. It also comes between the dispersion and temporary abeyance of unbelieving Israel and their subsequent regathering and reclamation by God as His Chosen People.
This will happen when Messiah Jesus returns to earth at the end of the present age (see Romans 11). The purpose for the present church age is to take a people out of all nations and gather them into the body of Christ. God deals with the Church on the basis of love, kindness, righteousness, and acceptance through Jesus Christ. As His Church we are now under His saving grace no longer condemned as sinners under the punitive judgment of the broken law.
Christ’s redemption of us should produce in us, according to the power of divine grace, a loving willingness to obey Him and live morally upright lives for the glory of God and to wait for His Son from heaven. God does give both the believer and unbeliever several biblical warnings against the misuse, abuse, and neglect of His grace to help us examine ourselves, whether we be in the faith or not (2 Corinthians 13:5).
“Looking diligently lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up and thereby many be defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
The Greek word for “fall” in Hebrews 12:15 is huesteron, which means “to come behind; to fail and fall short”. To fail the grace of God is to lack and be destitute of it. As followers of Christ we are not to allow any bitterness, anger, resentment, or unforgiveness to fill our hearts lest God’s gracious love is crowded out and not able to penetrate our inner man.
The Word of God commands Christians to put away all bitterness, wrath, malice, and evil speaking (Ephesians 4:31). This must be done if we are to continue in the grace of God. If we refuse to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us, the heavenly Father will not forgive us our trespasses. Jesus laid down this simple condition in Matthew 6:14-15:
“For if you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
By grace, then, a truly saved Christian will forgive others as He has been forgiven by God
Grace can also fail because of unbelief in the gospel. The heart of unbelief has a spiritual disdain for the divine and exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. Since the Bible says only God’s grace can truly save, the rejecter of it will die in the state of sin and experience the eternal separation of God in the lake of fire. People who show contemptuous disregard for Christ’s saving death on the cross do so at their own eternal peril (Hebrews 10:29-31). Jesus warned the unbelieving Jews in John 8:24 and all those who disbelieve Him:
“If you believe not that I am He, you will die in your sins.”
In the original Greek manuscripts there is no personal pronoun “he” in verse 24 of John chapter eight. So the original Greek text should read: “If you believe not that I AM, you shall die in your sins.” When the Lord Jesus used the I AM phrase here, He was using the same divine name for God in Exodus 3:14 where the Lord told Moses His holy name is “I AM.” Jesus also claimed the same divine name for Himself in John 8:24, 58.
The equation is simple then; if you refuse to believe that Jesus Christ is Yahweh God in the flesh you cannot be saved and appropriate His grace. Woe to those then who deny that Jesus is God! In John 10:31-33 the Jews attempted to stone Jesus for claiming to be God because they knew exactly what He was claiming. Biblical examples of those who failed and fell short of the grace of God are Esau and Simon the sorcerer.
Esau failed to take hold of God’s gracious promise of the first-born and lightly esteemed it by giving such away to his younger brother, Jacob, for a mess of pottage (Genesis 25:27-33). Simon the sorcerer failed to receive salvation by grace because his bitter heart sought to purchase the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit for selfish and mercenary purposes (Acts 8:18-24).