HOW MANY DISPENSATIONS ARE THERE?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Ignoring innumerable speculations and various contradictory views, we are most interested in what the Holy Bible says. In this, our special-edition Bible Q&A article #750, we provide a simple (non-exhaustive!) introduction to all the dispensations. “For what saith the Scriptures?”
FIRST THINGS FIRST
To begin, we need a reliable definition of the word “dispensation.” While often assumed and commonly taught to be a “period of time,” a better way to look at it is to consider its Greek equivalent—“oikonomia.” It literally means “house rules.” Almighty God, as the owner of the household of creation, establishes a set of directions that He expects people to believe and obey. In English, a “dispensation” is “a body of information God gives to mankind, or a segment of mankind, for his faith and obedience during an established time.”
Obviously, “dispensation” is the noun form of the verb “dispense” (distribute). God introduces various dispensations through a series of spokesmen over the course of human history. Again, a dispensation is not a time period, but it covers a time period, and that time spanned is an “age.” As a physician or pharmacist would dispense medication—what to take, when to take it, how much to take, for how long, and so on—so God issues dispensations. Another way to look at a dispensation is to view it from the perspective of Greek. Our word “economy” is derived from “oikonomia” (they even sound the same!). In this sense, we are referring to a careful management of goods or resources. Approaching the Bible dispensationally means we understand God’s words are being wisely revealed in an orderly fashion. There is no confusion or difficulty unless we fail to follow 2 Timothy 2:15: “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
Always remember, God’s nature does not change. He changes His dealings with man because man changes. The dispensations change because man changes!
The word “dispensation” appears four times in a King James Bible:
- 1 Corinthians 9:17: “For if I do this thing willingly, I have a reward: but if against my will, a dispensation of the gospel is committed unto me.”
- Ephesians 1:10: “That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:….”
- Ephesians 3:2: “If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:….”
- Colossians 1:25: “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;….”
With these opening remarks covered, we now proceed to delineating and explaining the dispensations themselves.
DISPENSATION #1: DISPENSATION OF INNOCENCE
There most certainly had to be a dispensation applicable to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, as they lived under a special, nonrepeatable economy. We could call this “Innocence” or “Garden.” Adam had not yet sinned, so he and Eve were innocent. Creation was not cursed as of yet. There was one set of instructions for man to follow: the first and simplest dispensation also covered the shortest period of time.
We read the instructions in Genesis chapter 2: “ And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:  But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Of course, we use common sense. This is in the Bible, but it is not to or about us. We could “be Scriptural” here—and be completely out of the will of God! These are not His instructions to us.
In chapter 3, Adam and Eve disobeyed this dispensation. Listening to Satan’s lie, they ate the forbidden fruit! Therefore, another dispensation was necessary. Sin caused God to deal with Adam and Eve (mankind) in a new way. The Fall transitions to the next dispensation—Promise.
DISPENSATION #2: DISPENSATION OF PROMISE
The “promise” is a common theme of Scripture, and it starts immediately after man fell into sin. It will continue until Mount Sinai and the giving of the Law of Moses. Promise starts with Eve but ends up with the nation Israel. Once Adam sinned, God promised “the seed of the woman,” a Man who would reverse the damage Adam caused in creation. “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). The bloodline of Messiah is established, and runs through Abraham (Genesis 17:7-8; Genesis 22:18), Abraham’s son Isaac (Genesis 26:1-3), Isaac’s son Jacob (Genesis 28:10-13), and Jacob’s 12 sons (Deuteronomy 1:8; Exodus 1:1-7). The 12 sons are the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Ultimately, the “seed” will be Jesus Christ Himself, born some 2,000 years after Abraham. See Galatians chapter 3: “ Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.  And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.  For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.  Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.”
As we can see, the “promise” given to Eve—that she would be the ancestor of the Messiah—was subsequently passed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the nation Israel’s establishment and subsequent proliferation in Egyptian bondage. Jacob’s son Judah will have a descendant, King David, and David will be an ancestor of Jesus Christ (see Luke 1:31-33, for instance). Messiah/Christ is the true seed of the woman, and it is only “in Him” will salvation from sins be. The Lord Jesus Christ will reverse all the harm Adam and Satan caused in creation. Since Israel refused to be the “seed of promise”—accepting God’s grace as found in the Abrahamic Covenant, this necessitates the Dispensation of Law.
DISPENSATION #3: DISPENSATION OF LAW
Israel was ungrateful when JEHOVAH God delivered her from Egyptian slavery. Instead of receiving His grace provisions given them in the wilderness—His splitting the Red Sea, His providing them water, His giving them manna to eat, His providing them with water, His blessing them with military victory, and His furnishing them with counsel (Exodus chapters 14–18)—they wanted to perform to get His blessings. Consequently, “the law was added” (Galatians 3:19)… that is, the Mosaic Law was “added” to the “promise.” By using a series of complex rules and regulations, God had to teach or prove to Israel that her religious performance—namely, the lack of absolute perfection therein—would not be the means whereby she would be His people. He would work to make her His people to bring about the Messiah or Saviour; like all sinners, she could not save herself!
The Dispensation of Law runs all the way through the Scriptures until the Apostle Paul’s ministry in Acts chapter 9. When Jesus Christ—the “seed” (Galatians 3:16)—was born and conducted His earthly ministry for three years, Israel rejected and crucified Him in unbelief! She was given a renewed opportunity of repentance to accept and believe on Him in early Acts, but she again rebelled against God’s purpose and plan for her. She obstinately refused to listen to the Holy Spirit preaching through Israel’s believing remnant, particularly the Apostle Peter and the other 11 Apostles. This results in Israel’s temporary spiritual fall in Acts chapter 7 (Stephen’s murder!), and her diminishing until Acts chapter 28. Acts chapters 7–28 comprise the transition to the Dispensation of Grace, with the “norm” established after Acts.
DISPENSATION #4: DISPENSATION OF GRACE
Here is the present-day. Read chapter 3 of Ephesians, paying close attention to verse 2: “ For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles,  If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:  How that by revelation he made known unto me the mystery; (as I wrote afore in few words,  Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ)  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;  That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel:  Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power.
“ Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ;  And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ:  To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God,  According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord:  In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him.”
As per the Dispensation of Grace, committed to the Apostle Paul’s trust, Israel is temporary fallen and salvation is going to the Gentiles without her national conversion (Romans 11:11-14). God is forming the Church the Body of Christ, of all believing Jews and Gentiles who will simply come to Jesus Christ by faith in the Gospel of Grace: “Christ died for our sins, He was buried, and He rose again the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4; cf. Acts 20:24). The Body of Christ is God’s heavenly people, whom He will use in the heavenly places in the ages to come. They sit in stark contrast to the nation Israel, God’s heavenly people, whom He will utilize in the earth in the ages to come. No matter how hard we try to force them to be the same, the Dispensation of Grace is absolutely not compatible with the Dispensation of Law! Romans 6:14-15 could not be clearer: “For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid.” God’s Word to and about us, God’s will for us, is found in Paul’s epistles, Romans through Philemon.
One day, God will close the Dispensation of Grace. At an event commonly called the Rapture, He will take the Church the Body of Christ into the heavenly places (see 1 Corinthians 15:51-58, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, et cetera). This will allow the prophetic program to resume where it paused in the Book of Acts with Paul’s salvation. Once Satan and his evil angels are cast out of the outer space onto the earth, the Body of Christ will begin ruling and reigning in the heavenly places (Revelation 12:7-14). With the mystery program closed, the prophetic program can pick up, and God’s eternal purpose can be accomplished.
DISPENSATION #5: DISPENSATION OF FULNESS OF TIMES
Ephesians chapter 1 covers the last dispensation: “ Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence;  Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself:  That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him:  In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will:  That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ.”
Father God’s ultimate purpose is to crown Jesus Christ as the Head of all governments of heaven and earth (see also Ephesians 1:20-23 and Colossians 1:16-20). Remember, Satan, and sinful man following him, caused chaos. However, they merely delayed God’s plans—not abrogated them! God in His wisdom will still have the last word.
After our Dispensation of Grace, there begins the seven-year Tribulation (also called Daniel’s 70th Week). This is the time of the Antichrist, when God purges Israel of all unbelievers. The LORD God wants a pure nation, what He desired back with Abraham before Israel messed it all up. He desired an unadulterated earthly people—what He intended back with Adam and Eve before they fell into sin too. Jesus Christ will return at His Second Coming to destroy the Antichrist and his followers, and set up His own earthly kingdom. He will rule the earthly realm through believing Israel, just as (by this time) He is already ruling in the heavenly places through us the Body of Christ. However, during that 1,000-year Kingdom (Revelation 20:1-6), Jesus Christ will reign on the earth with unbelievers being born: “The LORD will send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies” (Psalm 110:2).
These rebels will be punished at the end of the Millennium, when they gather to destroy Jerusalem (Revelation 20:7-15). Finally, the New Heaven and New Earth of chapters 21 and 22 are in place. We have at last reached the “norm” of the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times. In other words, the Tribulation and the 1,000-Year Kingdom increasingly transitioned into this last dispensation. Fulness of Times is divided into a series of ages (see Ephesians 2:7). Also, unlike the previous four dispensations, it is open-ended—it goes on forever!
While there are various and sundry explanations, this author believes it is easiest to consider the Bible as a timeline covered by five dispensations—unique sets of Divine instructions given to man for a particular time for his faith and obedience. These dispensations are:
- INNOCENCE – Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, before they sinned (the Fall transitions to #2)
- PROMISE – God’s efforts to establish a bloodline for the seed of the woman, culminating in the seed of Abraham and the nation israel (the wilderness experiences of Israel immediately-post-Red-Sea transitions to #3)
- LAW – added to the Promise because of transgressions, it began with Moses and Israel at Mount Sinai, although we are careful to note Law accentuates not cancels God’s ultimate reason for Promise (the Book of Acts transitions to #4)
- GRACE – God’s current dealings with man began with the Apostle Paul’s ministry in Acts chapter 9, forming the Church the Body of Christ, and running all the way until the Rapture (the Tribulation and Millennium transition to #5)
- FULNESS OF TIMES – Jesus Christ, the seed of the woman and the seed of Abraham, is appointed Head of all governments in Heaven (Body of Christ) and Earth (redeemed Israel), to be preceded by the Tribulation and 1,000-Year Reign, respectively – God’s purpose in creation increasingly and finally achieved!
Again, this was not meant to be an exhaustive article on the subject of dispensational Bible study. More could have been written, but this work would have been overwhelming to you the reader. You are therefore highly encouraged to refer to the related articles linked at the end of this study.
SUPPLEMENTAL #1: WHAT ABOUT SEVEN DISPENSATIONS?
Over a century ago, Dr. Scofield, in his eponymous study Bible, popularized a seven-dispensation system. Undoubtedly, it is the most common chart or timeline among dispensationalists. Actually, this author grew up with that understanding, which can be summarized thusly: (1) Innocence, (2) Conscience, (3) Human Government, (4) Promise, (5) Law, (6) Grace, and (7) Kingdom. As the reader will notice, the only difference between this and the five-dispensation summary laid out in our article here is the removal of dispensations #2 and #3.
Having dealt with the reasoning behind our five-dispensation view, let us consider the reasoning behind the seven-dispensation scheme. After Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden, they were to live according to their “conscience” (knowing good and evil—the result of eating the forbidden fruit). However, there is a blunder here. It is quite improper to restrict “conscience” to one segment of human history, for even now do we have a “conscience” that accuses or excuses our actions (Romans 2:13-16). Conscience should not be considered a dispensation for this obvious reason. It encompasses the Dispensation of Promise, the Dispensation of Law, and the Dispensation of Grace. The nuances of the Bible’s dispensational layout are therefore hidden!
As for “Human Government,” the five-dispensation proponent contends God judged the world with the Great Flood because mankind failed to live up to Conscience. That is, the Dispensation of Human Government replaced the Dispensation of Conscience after Noah exited the ark and received Divine instructions to be fruitful, multiply, and enforce capital punishment concerning murderers (Genesis 9:1-7). Again, not only is this faulty (see our “conscience” remarks above—namely, conscience cannot be a dispensation), it undermines the fact humans multiply and govern themselves today. Once more, the sharp contrasts between Dispensation of Promise, the Dispensation of Law, and the Dispensation of Grace are all blurred!
If we eliminate the Dispensation of Conscience and the Dispensation of Human Government, which form a meticulous system, we have something far more understandable. What is called “Conscience” and what is called “Human Government” can be combined to form one enormous dispensation—a dispensation even the seven-dispensation proponents already know. In other words, we simply incorporate them into the Dispensation of Promise! Now, this is much easier to grasp. As soon as man lost his innocence and fell, God instituted Promise—and Promise carries all the way through to Mount Sinai (Law). The LORD promised a Redeemer back in Eden (grace) but Israel preferred works, and that brought about the Dispensation of the Law. Man’s pervasive sins in Noah’s day before the Flood, the rebellion of the nations at the Tower of Babel after the Flood, the subsequent call of Abraham, and the ultimate formation of the nation Israel are all elements of the Dispensation of Promise (both God’s works and Satan’s counterefforts). God in His wisdom still outsmarts His Adversary!
SUPPLEMENTAL #2: DID OUR DISPENSATION OF GRACE BEGIN DURING THE BOOK OF ACTS, OR AFTER?
Sadly, this is a rather confused issue, and it need not be. Even in dispensational circles, people have had such great difficulty comprehending Paul’s strange “Acts” ministry. Why did our Apostle heal the sick, raise the dead, water baptize converts, speak in tongues, cast out devils, observe the Sabbath, and so on? If these activities do not belong in our dispensation, then why did Paul engage in them? Some have even gone so far as to suggest Paul’s ministry actually spans two dispensations—the imaginary so-called “Dispensation of the Covenants of Promise” (Acts), and the other “the Dispensation of the Grace of God” (post-Acts). They claim Paul was working in Israel’s program. Like denominationalists and church traditionalists, all they have done is complicated the Bible further, destroying the beautiful layout of dispensational truth!!!
Let it be clearly understood! Paul’s ministry always involved one and ONLY ONE dispensation—“the Dispensation of the Grace of God” (Ephesians 3:2; Colossians 1:25). His very salvation unto eternal life depended on a new dispensation, not some weird “extension” of Israel’s program and the 12 Apostles’ ministry. Our dispensation began in Acts chapter 9, with Saul’s (Paul’s) meeting Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus.
Now, someone is bound to ask, “If Paul’s ministry covered just one dispensation, why did he behave so bizarrely in Acts? Why did he perform the tasks that do not belong in our dispensation?” Friend, simply put, he did it for Israel’s sake—so as to signal to Israel that her prophetic program had given way to our mystery program! Whatever God had been doing amongst the Jews (especially Christ’s earthly ministry, Matthew through John, and early Acts), He was now working amongst the Gentiles through Paul’s ministry. This is Paul’s “provoking” ministry to Israel as found in Romans 11:11-14, designed to cause unsaved Jews to convert to Jesus Christ through his Gospel and join the Church the Body of Christ. Israel “fell” in Acts chapter 7, and she is “diminishing” all the way to the end of Acts (chapter 28). Paul wrote Romans during that time. He is attempting to reach any lost Jews as well as any lost non-Jews. Of course, for sake of time and space, we cannot delve into this matter any further. Refer to our related studies below.
These dispensational articles are highly recommended:
» Was the Apostle Paul a false prophet?
» Can you explain Peter and the 11’s ministry from Acts chapters 7 through 15?
» Why does the Book of Acts end so abruptly?
» Did the Church the Body of Christ begin in Acts 2?
» When did the Church the Body of Christ begin?
» Why is there so little human history in Genesis chapters 1–11?
» Can you explain Paul’s ministry during Acts?
» Are we dispensationalists guilty of “limiting God?”
» Must one be a “King James Bible Pauline dispensationalist” to have eternal life?
» Are we Pauline dispensationalists anti-Jewish?
» How should we view dispensationalists of bygone days?
» If dispensational Bible study is true, how come so few believe it?
» Is prophecy being fulfilled in the Dispensation of Grace?
» What is Acts 9/28 Hybrid Theology?
» When Paul says “there is no difference,” is he referring to people outside the Body of Christ or in it?
» What is the greatest threat facing the Grace Movement?
» Are our mystery program and its promises better than Israel’s prophetic program and its promises?
» Have I blasphemed against the Holy Ghost?
» Is Israel “cast away,” or not? Has Israel “fallen,” or not?
» What do you mean—“the prophetic program” and “the mystery program?”
» Did not God send messengers to Gentiles prior to Paul’s apostleship?
» When did Paul know about Israel’s fall?
» Who is Judas’ replacement—Matthias or Paul?
» Was Israel’s fall a secret?
» Are we merely interested in breaking up churches?