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Antinomianism has been a serious problem within the church for hundreds of years. In the twentieth century, this doctrine received a new lease on life due to the widespread influence of a system of theology known as dispensationalism.
Dispensationalism was born in the early nineteenth century in Great Britain. It is usually traced to the work of John Nelson Darby (1800–1882), the leader of the Brethren movement. Darby made numerous trips to the United States and Canada between 1862 and 1877, and in the process he influenced several significant Christian leaders. His unique eschatology was promoted through the Niagara Bible Conferences of the late nineteenth century.
C.I. Scofield (1843–1921) was one of those who was profoundly influenced by Darby’s theology. He would become instrumental in the spread of dispensationalism through the publication of the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909. This Bible, which includes dispensational study notes, has sold millions of copies worldwide. But Scofield also contributed to the spread of dispensationalism through his strong influence on Lewis Sperry Chafer (1871–1952), whose importance to the spread of dispensationalism is almost as significant as that of Scofield himself.
In 1924, Chafer established the Evangelical Theological College, which in 1936 changed its name to Dallas Theological Seminary. Dallas Seminary turned out some of the most important dispensationalist theologians of the twentieth century, including John Walvoord, Charles C. Ryrie, and J. Dwight Pentecost. Along with Chafer, these men are the most important representatives of what is now commonly termed “classical dispensationalism.”
One of the greatest weaknesses of classical dispensationalism is its adherence to antinomianism. Since dispensationalists tend to bristle at this charge, it is necessary to explain what we mean by the term antinomianism. To say that a particular tradition adheres to antinomianism is not to say that the individual members of that tradition are necessarily engaged in immoral behavior. Antinomianism is a doctrine that can lead to such behavior, but it is not the same as the behavior itself.
The word antinomianism comes from the Greek terms anti (“against”) and nomos (“law”). Antinomianism simply refers to the view that it is unnecessary for the Christian to obey the moral law of the Old Testament. Antinomianism teaches that it is not merely the ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Testament that have been abrogated by the coming of Christ. The moral law, including the Ten Commandments, has been abrogated as well.
That is what antinomianism is. Does classical dispensationalism teach antinomianism? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
Because dispensationalism is a non-confessional tradition, we cannot simply turn to a particular confession of faith to discover what it teaches. Only by reading the works of its most prominent spokesmen may the teaching of dispensationalism be discovered. If we do this, we notice a consistent doctrine regarding the Old Testament law. For example, in his Systematic Theology, Chafer expresses the dispensationalist understanding of the law very clearly: “The entire system, including the [Ten] commandments as a rule of life, ceased with the death of Christ” (Vol. 7, p. 225). Elsewhere, he explains that Christ “disannulled” the law (Grace, p. 88). Likewise, Ryrie explains, “The law was never given to the Gentiles and is expressly done away for the Christian” (Balancing the Christian Life, p. 88).
This common emphasis is repeated in more recent dispensationalist writings. Wayne Strickland, for example, writes of “the importance of understanding that the Mosaic Law is antithetical to the Gospel and has no part of it” (Five Views on Law and Gospel, p. 279). He adds that the Mosaic Law “ended when God suspended His program with Israel . . . ” (Ibid, p. 276). If the standard definition of antinomianism is used, then classical dispensationalism is clearly antinomian.
All of this forces us to ask whether there is something inherent in the nature of classical dispensationalism that causes it to embrace antinomianism. The answer is yes, and unfortunately this underlying cause also happens to be the central and defining doctrine of classical dispensationalism—the distinction between two peoples of God, Israel and the church.
According to classical dispensationalism, God has two programs in history, one for Jewish Israel and one for the church. The present church age is a parenthesis during which time God has suspended His primary purpose with Israel. After the Rapture of the church, God will turn again to His purposes for Jewish Israel. This means that the church, or body of Christ, consists only of those believers saved between Pentecost and the Rapture. The church does not include Old Testament believers (See my Dispensationalism, pp. 17–24).
This idea of two peoples of God with two completely separate purposes is the defining doctrine of dispensationalism, and it explains why dispensationalism so readily embraces antinomianism. The Mosaic Law, according to the dispensationalist, is tied to the specific purposes of God for Israel during the dispensation of law. It cannot apply during the church age.
Dispensationalism has provided the most systematic theological foundation antinomianism has ever enjoyed, but the foundation itself is flawed. Scripture simply does not support the radical distinction between old and new covenant believers. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel included a remnant—true Israel. When Christ came, this remnant was represented by His disciples. This true Israel formed the nucleus of the new covenant church to which gentiles were added. There is discontinuity between the unbelieving nation of Israel and the church, but there is continuity between the true Israel and the church. They are part of the same olive tree (Rom. 11). God did not plant a new tree but grafted gentiles into the existing tree. When the Jews who have been hardened repent and turn to Christ, they will be grafted back into this same tree.
Old Testament believers cannot be viewed in isolation from Christ and New Testament believers. Christ is the key. The promises were made to Abraham and to his Seed, and his Seed is Christ (Gal. 3:16). His Seed is also all those who belong to Christ (Gal. 3:29). Therefore, the promises belong to Christ and to all who belong to Him. The promises do not belong to any who reject Christ, regardless of their ethnic background.
The dispensationalist dichotomy between Old and New Testament believers provides the theological foundation for the strong dispensationalist adherence to antinomianism. However, since the key doctrine of dispensationalism is a false doctrine, dispensationalists are resting their antinomianism on a foundation of quicksand.