Untenable Tenets of the Dispensational System

It is not the new birth, or even special empowerment by the Spirit that dispensationalists deny to the saints of the tribulation. How could they? They see well enough the power of the two witnesses and the mighty exploits that are being accomplished by the maskilim of Dan 11:32-33, 12:3, 10. They would even grant the special “coming upon” of the Spirit, selectively received throughout the OT, but corporately upon the fledgling church at Pentecost (Acts 1:8; 8:15-16). What they deny is that tribulation saints are “indwelt” by the Spirit.

It is hard to overstate how far this runs against the a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit and the doctrine of regeneration, as it pertains to both testaments, but this is nonetheless a key component of the system. But many, even in their own camp, are often not aware of this, and have not thought through why this view is an essential pillar of pre-tribulational dispensationalism.

But if tribulation saints are not indwelt by the Spirit, what of the truth of the believer’s adoption and union with Christ, as common partakers of the divine nature? How does one sustain union with the divine nature if this is not internal? How is one who is born of the Spirit not also indwelt by the Spirit? What happens to the New Covenant promise of a new spirit and new heart? What of the new creation that the believer becomes through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit?

Is not the Spirit that came at Pentecost the same that was promised all throughout the prophets? And will this promise not have a yet further fulfillment when the penitent survivors of Israel will receive the Spirit in the yet coming Day of the Lord? Are we to believe that the blessing of Pentecost and the New Covenant will be different, or something inferior for tribulation saints and the Jews who come into the blessings of the New Covenant at Jesus’ return? And what of the saved of the nations throughout the millennium? Will they NOT be indwelt by the Holy Spirit and therefore NOT qualify as members of Christ’s body?

John F. Walvoord and other pre-trib defenders speak of a “reversal of Pentecost”. Does this not imply a ‘retraction’ of the blessing of Pentecost? How would that notion suit Pentecostals? Yet many of them embrace the pre-trib rapture of the bride whom they distinguish form the saints of the tribulation. But how can there be a reversal of Pentecost without the equally impossible notion of a reversal of the New Covenant? Since the gift of the Spirit’s indwelling belongs to the blessing of the New Covenant secured in the Redeemer’s blood, how can this be reversed in the case of believers who come to faith during the tribulation and beyond?

Since the Spirit was (in some sense) “not yet given” until Christ was glorified (Jn 7:39), it is no more possible for a reversal of Pentecost than the reversal of the basis on which He would now be given. Now that Jesus has been glorified, the Spirit has also been ‘forever given’ in the full light of the revelation of that once and for all event. The relation of these two realities, the glorification of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit, are inseparable, not only throughout this age, but no less the millennial age to come. Yet dispensationalists would have us believe that tribulation saints will not be indwelt. Why not? Simply because this would make them members of the body of Christ based on such scriptures as 1Cor 6:17; 12:13; Eph 2:17; 4:4, etc.

In its original context, the eschatological promise of the Spirit was to the penitent survivors of Israel at the post-tribulational Day of the Lord (Isa 32:15; 59:21; Eze 11:19; 36:26-27; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:29-32; Zech 12:10-13:1). With the glorification of Jesus, the “promise of the Father” has come as first fruits in unexpected advance of “that day”, but this does nothing to cancel or change its original application and fulfillment in the still future DOL. Now that the New Covenant has been sealed in the Savior’s blood, how can it be thought that those who receive the promise in that coming day will receive something inferior to what the church received at Pentecost in first-fruits fulfillment of that very promise?

What is it then about God’s beloved saints enduring the persecution of the Antichrist that deprives them of the advantage of the Spirit’s indwelling? Shall post-tribulational Israel receive something inferior in the day of their national repentance than the fledgling community of Jesus confessors received at Pentecost on the very basis of that very promise? This is a question pre-tribulationists ought to reconsider, since they hold with us that the penitent Jewish survivors of Jacob’s trouble will indeed receive the promise of the Spirit at that time.

To rephrase the question: will those who receive the promise of the Spirit in its original, post-tribulational context, receive something less (“with” but not “in”) than the body of Christ received at Pentecost? Yet if the receive the Pentecostal blessing of the Spirit’s indwelling that the church of this age receives, how will they not be members of Christ’s body, particularly now that Jesus has been glorified? Why would tribulation saints not also be baptized by the one Spirit into the one body now that Jesus has been glorified?

I don’t think most pre-tribulationists have thought this through, or really seriously faced the implications of their unique view of the church that depends entirely on some very erroneous notions of the Spirit’s indwelling, as limited only to a presumed mystery church age. Now that Jesus has been once and for all glorified, there is no returning to an inferior, pre-Pentecost relationship of only ‘with’ but not ‘in’. Why would there be? Such an inference would not exist were it not for its essential expedience to support a view of the church that did not exit before Darby. The reason is clear.

Dispensationalism’s defense of the doctrine of imminence depends entirely on their defense of an ecclesiology that keeps the church out of the tribulation and no less out of the millennium. This is because of their view that the church is a mystery organism, belonging strictly to this present mystery dispensation, unforeseen and unforetold in the prophets. All the saved before Pentecost and those saved after the pre-tribulation rapture cannot belong to the ‘mystery body of Christ’. They belong instead to God’s program for Israel and the nations. So those who believe on Jesus after the rapture cannot, on this view, be reckoned as belonging to the body of Christ.

Dispensationalism depends on a view of the Pauline mystery that must be regarded as completely separate and distinct from the “mystery of the gospel and of Christ” (Eph 6:19), which is admittedly foretold in the OT scriptures. It is not only God’s eternal purpose to incorporate gentiles into equal standing in one body that was hid in other ages (Eph 3:6), but the mystery of the gospel itself (Ro 16:25-26; 1Pet 1:11-12), and this mystery was certainly fully foretold in the “scriptures of the prophets”. So already the idea that a mystery can have nothing to do with what was foretold in prophecy breaks down. To support, then, the idea of the church as a mystery organism, separate and distinct from all other saints in the OT, the tribulation, or the millennium, dispensationalism must conceive of the church, not only as a new revelation, but an entirely new entity, separate and distinct from all who will be saved in the tribulation and beyond.

It is one thing to “distinguish” between the church as the regenerate people of God and “Israel after the flesh”, elect and predestined, but not yet in Christ, but to posit a separation between the regenerate saints of the present time from all who are no less born again in the tribulation and beyond, is opposed to the Bible’s own definition of the nature of regeneration, and what constitutes believers as the body of Christ by reason of living union through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Dispensationalism’s unique understanding of the Pauline mystery is foundational to the system introduced by Darby. Certainly the church was not, and could not be revealed as the body of Christ until the gospel was revealed, but does this mean that the church, in its essential nature, as joined to God by the Spirit, had no prior existence? (1Cor 6:17). Here is a principle too little considered: For something to be newly revealed, or come more fully to light, does not necessarily mean it has had no prior existence.

This is a very neglected consideration. We see this with the gospel, with Christ, and particularly His two comings, which were certainly foretold, but not understood until the gospel was publicly revealed with the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost (compare Ro 16:25-26; 1Pet 1:11=12). This was entirely new to the understanding, but not new to what could be shown to have been fully foretold in the writings of the prophets. Yet Paul calls this fully foretold gospel a mystery that was kept secret in other ages (Acts 26:22-23; Rom 16:25-26; Eph 6:19).

For the dispensational view of the mystery to stand, it must be distanced from anything foretold in the OT, and nothing of OT prophecy can intermingle with this ‘mystery age’ that the church is assumed to occupy, as extending only from Pentecost to the rapture. The tribulation belongs to another dispensation entirely.

Why do dispensationalists find it necessary to assume this? It is because there can be no compromise of imminence. If the abiding possibility of the rapture is not to be put off beyond any intervening events foretold in OT prophecy, then for imminence to stand as an abiding, ever present possibility, no foretold event can exist in OT prophecy that must be fulfilled before the 70th week begins. All outstanding and un-fulfilled OT prophecy can only be seen on the other side of the rapture, fully contained in Daniel’ 70th week. Otherwise, if it can be shown that there are prophecies in the OT that could only be fulfilled in the long age between the advents, then, of course, imminence becomes impossible.

But a careful study and comparison of parallels of Paul’s use of the term, mystery, or secret will not permit this kind of complete dissociation from the mystery contained in the OT scriptures. Yes, there are discrete and distinct mysteries, not all of which were specifically foretold in the prophets, but these could only come to light by the revelation of the gospel (Ro 16:25-26).

Certainly the mystery of Christ and the church could not be understood as it is now, but since the revelation of the mystery of the gospel, the means by which God would accomplish His eternal purpose to bring all things together into one could now be made be made known (Eph 1:9; 3:5-6), not only to the church but to the principalities and powers (Eph 3:10). The mystery revealed to Paul was that through the instrumentality of the gospel (“by the gospel”), as a secret now revealed, God would fulfill His original promise to bless all nations through Abraham’s Seed, only this would accomplish something far more grand than anything that could have been conceived before. Not only would the nations be blessed, they would become fellow equals in the inheritance of the saints in the one, regenerate people of God, revealed now as the body of Christ, God’s one new man (regenerate man).

This is NOT something that is temporary, as in dispensationalism, but continues to be the revelation of everyone who believes on Christ until the final perfection of new heavens and earth. Granted, this discrete mystery revealed to Paul was not specifically spelled out anywhere in the writings of the prophets, but it is bound to the larger revelation of the gospel that is its basis. Therefore, in Paul’s mind, the mystery of the church is a piece with the mystery of the gospel.

Notably, one aspect that shows the relationship of the mystery to OT prophecy is its wonderful capacity for verifying the truth claims of the gospel by solving the puzzle of prophecy (1Pet 1:11-12). The agreement of the revealed mystery with all that stood written in the prophets was regarded as the gospel’s greatest evidence of proof (Acts 26:22-23). Yet, this evidence, so compelling in retrospect, was purposely hidden, not only from the pride of man, but necessarily from the righteous too, until the time appointed.

This is so that the mystery would remain hidden, even from the rulers of the darkness of this age, so that they would not know the ‘hidden wisdom’ until it was too late (1Cor 2:7-8; Rom 16:25-26). It was a divinely set trap (Isa 8:14-17 with 1Cor 2:7-8). So Paul’s view of mystery is not disconnected from Jesus’ teaching on the “mystery of the kingdom”, as the new form the kingdom would take throughout an unexpected, inter-advent period.

This idea of a mystery, closed up and sealed among the Lord’s disciples, has its background in the OT’s view of the sealed vision (Isa 8:14-17; 29:11; Dan 9:24; 12:4, 9; Hab 2:2-3). It is this that make the Messiah to be a stone of stumbling in His appointed time, but that’s another whole study in its own right, but very relevant to how we would see Paul’s use of the concept of the revelation of concealed secrets in contrast to dispensationalism’s interest to divide between two, regenerate peoples of God in order to keep the church out of the tribulation.

But suppose the concession is made, (as some non-dispensationalist also believe), that the church (as now defined) did not exist in any form before Pentecost. What then? Surely this is no proof that the church does not appear on earth again after the rapture, and that believers who come to faith during the tribulation and beyond are any the less to be reckoned as members of Christ’s body. This would be to suggest that a once and for all revelation could somehow recede back to something inferior, according to the dispensationalists’s reading of Jn 7:39 with Jn 14:17.

So in order preserve the doctrine of imminence, the church must be raptured before any of the signs of the 70th week can begin, obviously. Therefore, to make the church of this present, “mystery age”, exempt from the tribulation, something must explain the presence of saints in the tribulation, as seen so clearly all throughout the book of Revelation. Here is where dispensationalists turn to texts on the Holy Spirit to support the concept that only believers of this age can belong to the body of Christ, because only believers of this age have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

To uphold the system, they must define the church out of the tribulation, ‘at all costs’. Identify tribulation believers as members of Christ’s body and all is lost, case closed. That would put the church in the tribulation. That’s the logic. Thus the invention of a new, and unprecedented doctrine of the church that denies to the faithful of the tribulation identity as members of Christ’s body. We may find traces of the doctrine of imminence in church history, most often on the presumption that the Antichrist is present, but never this. This is new, original with Darby.

Like tribulation saints, millennial believers are also believed to sustain a pre-Pentecostal relationship to the Spirit, “with” but not “in”. Fantastical, I know, but this is some of the ugly underbelly that is taught in the seminaries in the interest defending the indefensible. Unhappily, much of this never reaches the people in the pew. They get just enough to be inoculated from a fair hearing of an alternative, mediating view, and never learn what academic pre-tribulationists know very well to be necessary to sustain the system. As for example, what would the average pre-tribulationist think if they knew what the academics at the seminary know, that for the system to work, Job, Isaiah, Daniel, and all the saints of the OT must remain in the dust of the earth for another seven years after the rapture, while the church is in heaven celebrating the marriage of the Lamb?

By defining the church out of the tribulation period, not only is the church protected from wrath (as though tribulation saints and Jews fed and preserved in the wilderness will NOT be protected from divine wrath, not to mention the surviving gentiles who facilitate Jewish return after the tribulation is over), but by removing the church from earth before the onset of Daniel’s 70th week, the doctrine of imminence is safeguarded, because all of the signs that definitely signal the Lord’s return belong to the 70th week, safely on the other side of the rapture. So nothing needs to happen that might signal Jesus’ return to rapture the church, since the signs belong to the 70th week.

The problem with this is view of imminence is the necessary reconstitution of Israel as a viable nation populated by Jews, with Jerusalem at its center (see Dan 12:1; Eze 38:8; Zech 12:2-3 et al). This is a comparatively recent development that did not exist for centuries!

Think about it: For nearly 17 centuries, the Jews were almost everywhere else but in their own Land. The Land was to lie waste and desolate, not for one, but for “many generations” (Isa 61:4). Not only this, but the temple that the last aggressor will “tread down, burn, and lay waste” is very significantly one that has been only recently recovered to Jewish possession (“possessed it but a little while”; Isa 63:18; 64:10-11). The context is clearly the final desolation of Jerusalem and the Jews’ final deliverance at the DOL. No other assault, whether Babylon, Greece, or Rome has burned a temple that the Jews had possessed only a “little while”.

Either this language is merely a metaphorical of a ‘seemingly’ short time, or it is literal, and necessarily future. The point is this: No other period has answered to the “many generations” of desolation as referred to in Isa 61:4. The Babylonian captivity was a single generation, 70 years. Only the long Diaspora that followed the Roman destruction can answer to these details. So how could Jesus return at any moment since Paul allegedly introduced the mystery of the pre-trib rapture sometime before his first letter to the Corinthians? And what was the “blessed hope” of believers living between Pentecost and Paul’s supposed new revelation? May I suggest it must have been the hope that Jesus gave to every believer drawn by the Spirit, namely, resurrection at the “last day” (Jn 6:39, 44; 11:24).

How possible then was an imminent return when there was no Jewish nation in existence to strike an agreement with the Antichrist? It is one thing to teach an any moment coming when the temple was still standing, and Daniel’s 70th week might begin without obstacle. It might seem possible again to teach an imminent return before the tribulation after the modern repatriation of the Land, but HOW can pre-tribulationists consider a pre-tribulational return a viable possibility for the 17 centuries during which the Jewish people were everywhere but in the Land? Where would be the “many generations” of desolation, not to mention many other details of the foretold Jewish experience all throughout the long Diaspora that began with the Roman expulsion?

But I digress; back to the issue of the Spirit. So we see Dispensationalism’s ‘interest’ to find anything that might seem to support their distinction between the saints of this, so-called “church age” (a term so completely assumed you would almost think it exists in scripture). They believe they find justification to distinguish so-called “church saints” from so-called, “tribulation saints” by their understanding of Holy Spirit’s relation to the body of Christ as unique to believers of this mystery church age.

They argue, and who will not agree?, that the Spirit was in some sense “not yet given”, because Jesus was “not yet glorified” (Jn 7:39). They further point out that Jesus speaks of the Spirit who is now “with” the disciples but “will be” (future tense) “in” them (Jn 14:17). Dispensationalists make much of this to argue that before Pentecost the Spirit was only “with” OT believers. He was not “in” them. When it is pointed out that many of the OT saints were indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, with Peter affirming the same in the NT (1Pet 1:11), the response is, “yes, but the Spirt did not indwell them PERMANENTLY”. Well, they were either born again or they weren’t, and how else do the dead live and sustain a living relationship with the living God? (Mt 22:32). We can see from Jesus’ remarks to Nicodemus that He did not regard the new birth as something new or future, but a present necessity to discern the things of the Spirit, as Paul would also so clearly affirm (1Cor 2:14). In the OT, the children of the flesh persecuted the children of the Spirit, even as now (Gal 4:29), and so on we could multiply examples.

But perhaps the most exegetically unsupportable ‘reach’, illustrating how one unproven inference demands another, is when pre-tribulationists advance the notion that not only “assumes” that the Holy Spirit is the un-identified personal restrainer of 2Thes 2:7, but that it is the church that must be removed before the man of sin can be revealed. It is one thing to say the Holy Spirit is the one who is holding back the revelation of the man of sin (itself a mere inference); it is quite something else to say it is particularly His indwelling of the church that requires that the church be removed. How is this arrived at?

Pre-tribulationists do NOT want to say that the Holy Spirit is removed entirely from the earth. They know that no one could be born again after the rapture except by the Spirit, of course. Therefore they reason that it is particularly the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence in the believers (of this age) that is removed. Thus, the church is removed. And, as we have shown, since the church as the body of Christ is defined by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they reason that those who come to faith during the tribulation cannot be the body of Christ. Well, there it is. This is what they teach, and must teach in order to keep the church out of the tribulation, in order to maintain the any moment return to terminate the mystery body’s limited tenure on this earth.

It is a shameful grabbing at straws, and like all wood, hay, and straw, it will go up in smoke not many days hence, but at what cost? The prophetic people of God must not only identify error, they must ask why it has come, particularly just now? What does it threaten? What will it cost in the day when it will be required?

Before ending this, I can anticipate that many will want to ask in what sense was the Spirit “not yet given” in Jn 7:39? I may not know the right or complete answer, but I’m sure enough of a few things it cannot mean. It cannot mean that no one was ever indwelt by the Spirit before Pentecost. That would be a contradiction of a host of scriptures bearing upon the nature of vital regeneration and flatly contradict 1Pet 1:11 that says that the Spirit of Christ was “in” the prophets. When this is pointed out, it is ‘desperately’ argued that He ONLY in-dwelt the prophets, or worse, that He did not PERMANENTLY indwell them.

While the Spirit certainly came in a much fuller, ‘corporate’ measure, with signs following, there were signs before Pentecost. So in what way did He come that was wholly new? I can only suggest, but one thing that was truly new and without precedent. It is the Spirit’s descent upon the whole of the church. All that were being daily added to the church received the ‘coming upon’, ‘falling upon’ of the Spirit’s power and anointing. This fulfilled Moses’ desire that the prophetic anointing would come upon all the people (Num 11:29).

The special empowerment of the Spirit was no longer selective, as in the OT, but came upon all, not only in gifts and signs, but perhaps the best answer is that now, the Spirit would come as the Spirit of revelation, opening to clear view the mystery that many prophets and righteous, even angels desired to look into (Mt 13:17; 1Pet 1:12). The full glory of the revealed mystery could only break on the disciples’s understanding AFTER Jesus was glorified, and now the gospel could be proclaimed to the whole world. This is just the point of Pentecost. This is at least one sense in which the Spirit came in power that is not too much considered in studies and discussions of what changed at Pentecost.

I suspect that the phenomenon of revelation and the deep piercing of the heart, all in conjunction with the appointed time, is what sets Pentecost apart, as it set in motion the church’s mission to the nations. That’s perhaps part of the explanation of what unique, new sense the Spirit had not yet been given.

As for Jn 14:17, I suggest that far too much has been concluded beyond its simple intent. It is typically taken to mean that the Spirit who is “with” the disciples would come at some future time to be “in” them. I don’t think that’s the point, though, of course, it could be so argued, provided this was the only text to use this language, and provided that such a conclusion didn’t conflict with other clear texts bearing upon the question. But I invite us us to look at another text in John’s second epistle where the same language is used.

“For the truth’s sake, which dwells ‘in’ us, and shall be ‘with’; us forever” (2Jn 2). Observe that here we have an inversion of the same expression, “with”, and “shall be in”. Who would want to suggest that the truth, which now dwells “in us” will change His relation to an inferior position of only “dwelling WITH us” sometime in the future? I submit that this is simply what is called a ‘synonymous parallelism’, intended only to stress the abiding nature of the Spirit’s, or in this case, the truth’s relation to the believer, and not a change of position or relationship.

In my view, the disciples would hear this comfort from Jesus, not as a change of location, but an assurance that the One currently with them, would come to them in the person of ‘another Comforter’ and remain ‘in’ them forever, not that they were currently un-born again, or un-indwelt by the Spirit. Jesus had pronounced them all “clean”, except Judas (Jn 13:10), and this could never be said apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit that implies the indwelling of the divine nature, which Peter will make the equivalent of being ‘born again by the Word’, something that we may be sure distinguished the living from the dead, not only in the NT but no less in the OT (1Pet 1:23). Being born of the Word of God, as being partaker of the divine nature by the Spirit’s indwelling, is certainly NOT limited to NT believers, as a number of scriptures, and many necessary inferences can be produced to show. .

But again, even if it were granted that the Holy Spirit indwells believers in this age in some unique, unprecedented way, this would not mean that He will do less for tribulation saints, particularly since His indwelling is based on the once and for all glorification of Jesus. Conclusion: Tribulation saints, and all who come to faith throughout the millennium will be no less the body of Christ on earth than those who have the Spirit now.

Filed under
Dispensationalism, Pre-Trib Rapture, The Body of Christ
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