By RANDY WHITE, D.Min.
Founder and CEO
One of the bedrock principles of dispensationalism is “rightly dividing the word” (2 Tim. 2:15). Far more than careful “handling” (NASB) this phrase means “to make a straight cut” in the Word. Without dividing the Word into its “many portions” (Heb. 1:1, NASB) or dispensations, our presentation of Scripture will be a mishmash of teaching that will be handled in a pick-and-choose style. Covenant theologians are notorious for this cafeteria approach to the Bible.
The Pick-and-Choose Approach
Not having a theological means of making a division, the covenant theologian (i.e., R.C. Sproul, John Piper, Tim Keller and Matt Chandler) will determine what is valid for today and what is not based on personal conviction. When it comes to the law (torah), they have created a not-so-clean system to suit their needs. It is a system which, upon close scrutiny, is patently unbiblical. They tell us that the law is divided into three areas: the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law. They teach that the ceremonial law has been fulfilled, that the civil law was only for Israel and that the moral law remains.
There are, however, two huge problems with this system.
First, the Bible is consistently clear that the Mosaic Law is a unit, an indivisible whole. Below are three passages evidencing this fact:
- “For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled” (Matt. 5:18, emphasis added).
- “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’” (Gal. 3:10, emphasis added).
- “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10, emphasis added).
How then do we justify any division of the law?
Second, if we divide the law, who decides which part is moral, which is civil and which is ceremonial? Is the cutting of the corners of the hair permissible (Lev. 19:27), but tattoos forbidden (Lev. 19:28), and yet the Sabbath laws can be disregarded (Lev. 19:30)—all based on a whim? Note that these aspects of the law are in the same chapter, even in connecting verses, yet the covenant theologian feels no shame in separating them into his three-fold division of the law system.
If you do not have a Biblical approach to the division of Scripture, you will inevitably take a pick-and-choose approach based on your cultural norms or personal preferences.
The Principle of Carryover
A far better approach is to look to a passage of Scripture and then, using Scripture alone, determine if the instruction or principle will carry over into our age. Using this principle, I can trust that the law, in its entirety, is fully of the past dispensation (Rom. 7:1-6). The law has served its purpose of preserving Israel until Christ, but it has no hold on my life today. I live under grace. When I find a principle in the law that appears to be valid for today, I simply look into the Scriptures to see if there is a carryover of the principle into other dispensations—previous and following.
A Biblical Example
The condemnation of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum in Matthew 11:20-30 provides three examples for understanding this interpretive principle.
How Should We Repent?
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt. 11:21).
While I have heard plenty of sermons on repentance, I have never heard anyone call for sackcloth, and very rarely for ashes (at least since the days of Tertullian, who promoted the practice before his death in 225 AD). The Catholic-originated Ash Wednesday (along with Lent) has no Biblical merit and should be wholly rejected by Bible-believing Christians. The Lenten fast has the same merit and involves the same practices as the Muslim Ramadan fast: It is all about “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5)
“Sackcloth and ashes” are found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and in Matthew 11:21 Jesus says that even the pagan cities of Tyre and Sidon “would have repented” in such a manner if He had performed his miracles in them. Should we not repent in the same manner?
No, we should not. To do so would display a begging for forgiveness that denies the grace of our age. Ours is not an age of sorrow, but of rejoicing over the astonishing truth that, in Christ, God is “not imputing (our) trespasses to (us)” (2 Cor. 5:19).
The Judgment of Cities and Nations
“But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Matt. 11:24).
If Jesus condemned Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum, and the Hebrew Scriptures display judgment on many cities (i.e., Tyre, Sidon, Sodom and Nineveh) and nations (i.e., Egypt, Assyria and Persia), does God judge cities and nations today? The carryover principle will help us decide. Rather than build a case based on anecdotal evidence, it is far better to search for the Biblical evidence that God is currently judging cities, states and nations. If you study it, you will find that, in this age of grace, God deals with individuals, not groups. Today, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female” (Gal. 3:28). God is judging individual people.
Will God judge nations and cities again in the future? Yes, clearly He will. For instance, we see the judgment of the nations in Matthew 25:31-46 and the judgment of Babylon in Revelation 17 and 18.
(Read Part 2)
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