Survey of Ages and Dispensations (!)
By Charles H. Welch
A survey and summary of the different callings that are discoverable in the Scriptures, may enable the student of Dispensational Truth to comprehend in some measure the wondrous sweep of the Purpose of the Ages. We begin at the centre, with the Dispensation of the Mystery, with that calling which goes back before the foundation of the world, and then proceed to sketch out the ever-widening circles of the Divine purpose, until we reach the very limits of mercy and the literal ends of the earth.
At the very heart and centre of God’s grace and love is found that company of believers, called in the Scriptures, ‘The Church which is His (Christ’s) body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all’. The blessings of this company are ‘all spiritual’, and its position and sphere is indicated by the words ‘seated together in heavenly places’. The charter of this church is found in the epistle to the Ephesians; the instrument through whom its calling and constitution were first made known is Paul the apostle, in the capacity of ‘The prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles’. It is an elect company, having been chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, and the calling of this company remained a secret ‘hid in God’ until the setting aside of the Jew, as recorded in the last chapter of the Acts, ushered in the dispensation of the grace of God to the Gentiles.
It is possible and highly probable that many who read these words will either not accept them at their face value or will acknowledge that such words do not describe their hope or calling, even though they may be very earnest believers. This, instead of being a matter for debate, is one for agreement. It is most certainly true that this Church is both small in number and inconspicuous in its place in the religious world.
If, however, we have rightly used the words ‘the heart and centre of God’s grace and love’ of this company, we necessarily imply that there is a company or companies outside, for we cannot have a centre without a circumference.
During the selfsame period in which the calling of the Church of the One Body was made known, another ministry was fulfilled, this time by the apostle John. His gospel differs in many ways from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke; it presupposes the failure of Israel, for in the opening chapter we read: ‘He came to His own, and His own received Him not’, it does not visualize a church, it is addressed to ‘whosoever believeth’, its great testimony is ‘life through His name’, and its alternatives are that of ‘perishing’ or of having ‘everlasting life’. It will be evident, when we compare this gospel with the epistles of the apostle Paul, that while John does not minister the truth of the Church of the Body of Christ, he wrote with the knowledge that such a company had been formed. These two callings, however, full as they may be, neither exhaust the needs of mankind nor the resources of Divine Grace. We have insisted that the minister of the Church of the Mystery, or of the Body, is Paul as ‘the prisoner of Jesus Christ’, but it is common knowledge that this same apostle occupied many years when he was free, travelling in ever-widening circles from Jerusalem, to Galatia, to Macedonia and to Rome itself.
During this time the people of Israel remained before God as a nation, and ‘the hope of Israel’ could still be entertained. Gentile believers were brought into relationship with Israel, as wild olives may be grafted into the true olive tree. Gentiles were brought into the New Covenant, even though that New Covenant had been made originally with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. The epistle of this period and calling, is that written by Paul to the Romans, and its great fundamental doctrine is ‘justification by faith’. Here we have a calling which is not that of the Church of the Mystery, neither is it the simple testimony of ‘life’ to ‘whosoever believeth’, it is the reconciling of the Gentiles, who since the call of Abraham in Genesis 12 had been left with but the witness of creation and conscience to guide them. Here, therefore, are three distinct sections of the Divine purpose, having as their peculiar portions of Scripture, Ephesians, John’s Gospel and Romans. The recognition of the distinctiveness of Paul’s earlier ministry, while it settles one problem, raises another. If during that ministry Israel were still present and an evident factor in the Divine plan, their present condition forces upon us the question ‘what is the fate of the Jew today?’
First, as to Israel’s place during the period of Paul’s early ministry. He declared that his gospel was ‘to the Jew first’, and right to the end of his ministry in the Acts he declared that he was bound ‘for the hope of Israel’. As already mentioned, the believing Gentile was ‘grafted’ in to the Jewish stock, and the records show that the early church commenced and grew as a part of the Synagogue. Concerning the place of Israel at that time, Paul recognized that while the nation of Israel as such was fast approaching the condition of blindness and hardness spoken of by the prophets, nevertheless there was even at that time ‘a remnant according to the election of grace’. Paul devotes chapters 9, 10 and 11 of Romans to this problem, and in the eleventh chapter he says: ‘Blindness in part is happened unto Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in. And so all Israel shall be saved’. ‘Saved’! ‘All Israel shall be saved’! !
Many Christians would maintain that Salvation apart from ‘faith’ and the ‘gospel’ is unscriptural. If that be universally true, its inexorable logic would lead to the belief that the great mass of the Jewish people who have lived and died in unbelief, are irrevocably lost. If this principle be insisted upon, then practically the whole heathen world must be lost, and to use an extreme case, helpless infants who die before the age of discernment must be lost. Happily the heart revolts against the head in these things, and all manner of expedients have been invented to circumvent the terrible logic of this simple, and at first sight, worthy principle. Earlier (page 118), we have spoken of the great principle of interpretation called ‘Right Division’, and it is the mis-application of ‘faith’ and ‘gospel’ to spheres and periods outside of their Divinely appointed scope, that is largely responsible for the errors here indicated.
The Scriptures when dealing with the problem of the Jew, actually introduce the fact that they have been during these past 1,900 years ‘enemies, as concerning the gospel’ yet they are to be ‘saved’!
Have we now reached the limits of Divine love? We have travelled far from the exclusiveness of the Church of the Body of Christ. We have even travelled beyond the gospel of ‘Life’ through ‘faith’. Is there, can there be more?
If one nation, the favoured nation of Israel can be thus saved, even though the bulk of their history be one long series of rebellion, disobedience, idolatry and rejection, may there not be hope for other nations of the earth?
The Scriptures, which introduce Abram as the father of the ‘great nation’ Israel, tell us that his name was changed to Abraham when God revealed that he should also be the father of ‘many nations’. It is common knowledge with those who are at all acquainted with the Old Testament, that Israel is looked upon as a nation in peculiar favour with God, and that such powerful and ancient nations as ‘the Egyptians’ or ‘the Assyrians’ appear in very dark colours, and are presented as positive ‘enemies’. Yet it is written:
‘All Israel shall be saved’ though enemies, and now we read of Egypt and Assyria sharing in the blessedness of the days of peace yet to dawn. How far does ‘faith’ and ‘gospel’ come into this blessing of Egypt and Assyria? Can such a passage, associated as it is with Israel as a nation, refer only to a few of these two peoples who may hear and believe the gospel in the last days? Such does not seem a fair interpretation of the prophecy.
There is more than this said about nations as such. The Saviour Himself has told us how He will deal with ‘All nations’ when He sits upon the throne of His glory. To one group of nations He will say ‘Come ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world’, but there is not one word about ‘faith’ or ‘gospel’ in the passage. These nations learn with astonishment that acts of kindness done to the least of the Lord’s brethren, were counted as done unto Himself, a confession that excludes personal faith. These go into life eternal, and are called ‘the righteous’, but judged by Paul’s gospel of justification by faith without works, and by evangelical principles, such would have found no acceptance or ground of peace (see MILLENNIAL STUDIES).
We have moved considerably from the very exclusive centre, the Church of the Mystery, but even now we have not travelled the length of the radius of Divine Love. Not only is provision made for the nations of the earth, but notice is taken of individual and peculiar circumstances. There are scattered passages which must be co-ordinated. If even one such passage be omitted either out of fear or prejudice, the complete picture will be spoilt. Here are a few such passages that point the way:
What a world hangs upon that ‘if’. Are we to believe that Tyre and Sidon will suffer eternal judgment because of an accident in time? or shall we realize that, while no human judge could possibly condemn or exonerate a prisoner on the grounds of what ‘he would have done’, the Judge of all the earth sees the thoughts and intents of the heart? What a light this may throw upon the superficial inequality of human experience and opportunity:
Here are several items of great importance, and of a character very different from the evangelical presentation. Conscience in the unenlightened heathen, is a rescript of the law of God. In the day of Jesus Christ, that conscience will accuse or excuse without respect of persons. This peculiar judgment is not of the external actions of men, but of their secrets, and strangest statement of all, this judgment is to be ‘according’ to the gospel preached by Paul. It is manifestly impossible to place these Gentiles in the same category as those addressed by Paul in the epistle to the Romans, yet, if we maintain that ‘faith’ in the evangelical sense is the yardstick of salvation wherever it is found, we shall have so to explain Romans 2 as to explain it away. This is not all. In the great doctrinal explanation of justification by faith, much stress is laid by the apostle on the principle implied in the words ‘His faith is counted forrighteousness’. Here, when speaking of Gentiles who could not believe simply because they had never heard, the apostle speaks of another application of this principle of ‘reckoning’:
This same epistle to the Romans takes a further stride towards the far flung circumference of Divine Love, when it discusses the parallel that exists between the effect of Adam’s one act of disobedience, and the effect of Christ’s one act of obedience:
In the context there is a distinction made between those who receive the free gift of a justification of ‘life’, and those who receive abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness, who shall ‘reign in life’ by one Jesus Christ. There is most certainly a distinction made in Scripture between ‘living’ and ‘reigning’ but even so, it is a blessed thing to see the free gift of ‘life’ extended to the seed, who by the deceit of the serpent lost their all in Adam.
Again, speaking of Adam, the apostle said:
We go now to the furthermost edge of revealed truth, to the last resurrection, and to the last judgment of all. There, we discover ‘the rest of the dead’ who have missed the age of the glorious reign of Christ, and who have no such association with Christ that is set forth in the figures, ‘Members of His Body’, ‘The Bride of the Lamb’, ‘His People’ or ‘His kingdom’. These stand before a Great White Throne, and two sets of books are mentioned. First, this vast multitude are judged out of those things written in the books, according to their works. Then when that judgment is declared, the book of life is to be opened and the final word of destiny pronounced. Our Authorized Version, by the use of the word ‘whosoever’, does not give an exact counterpart of the original. There is a pronounced and purposed turning from the vast number of the dead thus judged, to the individual:
This lake of fire, says the Scripture, is ‘the second death’. Whether all men universally have their names in that book of life, whether names once written therein can be ‘blotted out’, whether the book of life contains the names of the ‘Seed’ only, in contradistinction to all who may claim physical descent from Adam, is not, for the moment a subject for discussion. The peculiar association of the Great White Throne and the ‘overcomer’ is discussed at length in the articles dealing with the MILLENNIUM in An Alphabetical Analysis, Part 9.
What we have aimed at in this opening up of the great purpose of the ages is to demonstrate that while there is a sphere of blessing wherein faith is dominant, there are other spheres where faith is either not mentioned or where it appears to be impossible of exercise in the circumstances. All, whatever their calling, whether under grace, under the law, or without the law, whether they have heard and believed or whether ignorant alike of either gospel or the law, all who shall be saved, are saved solely by the merits of the Redeeming Sacrifice of the Son of God, however diverse may be the ways in which their interest in Redeeming Love may be manifested.
In this survey we have touched upon eight concentric circles that reveal the ever-widening embrace of Divine Love. For the sake of clarity let us tabulate them.
Starting this time with the widest possible extension of Divine Mercy
It has not been possible to deal exhaustively with every one of these suggested subdivisions of the Divine purpose, and this is not indeed necessary. We can well leave the unevangelized heathen to the mercy of the Lord, but we cannot treat with such scant reference the place and purpose of the Gospel according to Matthew, or of John, we must become thoroughly acquainted with the unfolding purpose as exhibited in the Acts of the Apostles. We must know fairly intimately the epistles written by Paul, and must be able to distinguish those epistles which were written when Israel’s hope was still humanly possible of attainment, and those epistles which were written after Israel was set aside and a new dispensation ushered in. The articles found in this Analysis are devoted to that unfolding, and it is the earnest prayer of the writer and his colleagues, that as a result of its publication many readers may be enlightened as to what is the dispensation of the Mystery and the unsearchable riches of Christ, and that they may attain to some measure of certainty regarding their calling and its hope.