Today’s verse refers to a “dispensation of grace.” What, exactly, is this, and what is its significance?
“If indeed you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which was given to me for you” (Ephesians 3:2)
Since I didn’t have any idea what a “dispensation” is, I did what most people do when they run in to something they aren’t familiar with—I researched it. According to The Complete Word Study New Testament (Zodhiates), the word translated “dispensation” is “oikonomia,” meaning “administration…a spiritual dispensation, management, or economy.” This makes perfect sense, because if you say it out loud, “oikonomia” sounds like our word “economy.” So a dispensation is an administration of God’s grace. But what, exactly, does this really mean, and why is grace and its administration so important?
Digging a little deeper, I learned that while Christians are living during the period of time called the “dispensation of grace”—the days after Christ’s resurrection but before His return to earth—by biblical scholars, there are a total of seven “dispensations”—administrations, ways in which God has dealt, deals, and will deal with mankind. Five are past, one is present, and one is yet to come.
Some scholars call the time period before the fall of Adam and Eve into sin the “dispensation of innocence,” the period after the fall the “dispensation of conscience,” the time of Noah the “dispensation of authority,” the time of Abraham the “dispensation of promise,” the time of Moses the “dispensation of law,” the current time the “dispensation of grace,” and the future dispensation the “dispensation of the personal reign of Christ.”
While all of these terms sound like they belong in a doctoral class on theology, we need to remember that people have a tendency to make complicated things that are, in essence, quite simple. God dealt differently—required different behavior as evidence of faith—with mankind depending upon where they stood in the history of time, but faith in Him was always required. Noah had to build an ark, Abraham to move from his country in obedience to God’s command, and the Israelites to obey the Mosaic laws, but all of these behaviors required a faith in the one, true God, and subsequent obedience that proved that faith. We today must believe that Jesus, the Son of God born in human form paid for our sins through His death on the cross and was raised by God the Father as proof of the sufficiency of His sacrifice. Our subsequent obedience to Christ is evidence of a genuine faith. But why is all of this important? Why spend the time to understand these things?
The reason why this is important is the message Jesus spent most of His earthly ministry proclaiming: not everyone will be saved. Jesus’ death on the cross did pay for the sins of every person who ever lived, but it is also correspondingly true that not everyone will be saved from the wrath [of God against the sinfulness of mankind] to come. Only those who have genuine, saving faith will be saved. But what is genuine, saving faith?
Many people erroneously believe they are “safe”—saved from hell and eternal punishment because they have “accepted Christ” or walked an aisle at some point in their lives. Scripture clearly teaches that nothing could be further from the truth. Remember that Satan is the great deceiver and is busy accomplishing this activity in any effective way. Jesus’ words, as well as the rest of Scripture, must be our plumb-line—the measure that we use to determine truth.
I have been singularly struck by the words of Matthew 7:21-23: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” Jesus identifies the distinguishing factor between salvation and damnation as doing the will of the Father—not practicing lawlessness.
Again, consider Matthew 7: 13-14: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Few. There are few who find the way which leads to life. We really need to hear this and pay attention to it, not because we are looking for some special, hidden way not previously revealed, but because although the way is clearly revealed in God’s word multiple times, how many of us are really following it?
Here is another verse: “And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples [those who learned from Him and did what He taught] and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoeverdoes the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50) Jesus was very specific in indicating that faith requires active obedience, and that even the performance of miracles is not, in the absence of desisting from lawless [contrary to the will of God] living, evidence of saving faith!
Within the Christian community we tend to think of the unchurched when we read about the wide gate and the many who are travelling through it, but I believe we need to be cautious with this assumption. Yes, those who have intentionally rejected the salvation message are on that path, but I am convinced there are many who deceive others, and maybe even themselves, as to whether they are on that narrow path truly following Christ. Not all sins are visible to others, and many of us are good at convincing even ourselves that we really are following Christ when we might not be.
The key to success—the way to really be saved, not just believe we are saved—is not by being perfect, because we cannot be perfect here in this life. It is, rather, by again listening to Jesus: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser [the caretaker]. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” (John 15:1-4) The way we can ascertain whether we are really saved and not just deceiving others and ourselves is by staying in Jesus. Jesus is the Word; John 1:1, 14 clearly identifies Him as such: “In the beginning was the Word…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” We can assure ourselves of genuine salvation by actively reading the written Word of God—the Bible—because it is only when we do that do we get “cleaned” (“You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.”). Otherwise, we become enmeshed in and influenced by the life and activities of the world around us, and our lives are in jeopardy of becoming like the world in Noah’s day—people eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day the flood came. Jesus said that the time of His return will be like the days of Noah—people basically going about their daily lives, living unrighteous lives because they have tuned Him out and don’t feel Him relevant to their existence—until the day it all ends.
So what is the significance of these days in which we live—this time of the dispensation of God’s grace? This is a time of the freeness of God’s unmerited favor, His grace, to those who do believe in Him—to those who are forgiven because of Christ and evidence their faith by remaining in Christ through His Word.
Let us evidence our faith by remaining in Christ: “Blessed is that servant whom his master, when he comes, will find so doing. Assuredly, I say to you that he will make him ruler over all his goods. But if that evil servant says in his heart, ‘My master is delaying his coming,’ and begins to beat his fellow servants, and to eat and drink with the drunkards, the master of that servant will come on a day when he is not looking for him and at an hour that he is not aware of, and will cut him in two and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 25:46-51) Our time of accounting is coming, and we truly do not know when it is, so we must faithfully continue following our Lord! Why? “For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14) Let us ever remember this very important word “few,” and remain faithful!
Please be our Lord, truly, and in the fullest sense of the word. Help us to remain in You, and be faithful during our time here on earth. Amen.