Two Dispensations: One Salvation
Even before the Scofield Reference Bible became so popular, the notion that God chose different ways of saving sinners at different times in man’s history was rife. Under this notion – known as Dispensationalism – the world is seen as a household administered by God at several stages of revelation, each stage placing on man the obligation to respond to his plan as revealed at any given particular period. Some distinguish his plan for Israel from his plan for the Church. More commonly, others claim to see seven or more ways of saving sinners, each differing from its predecessor!
By contrast, Calvin claims that God’s promise of salvation in Genesis 3:15 – termed the Protevangelium or first preaching of the Gospel – indicates that his purpose all along was to save all who shall be saved only through faith in Christ, the ‘seed of the woman.’ Furthermore, he demonstrates, especially in Book Two of his Institutes, chapters 9-11, that this is the procedure God actually adopted. Consequently, Abraham, Moses and David were saved in precisely the same way as Peter, Paul and John; that is, by grace through faith.
Although Dispensationalists accuse the Reformed of reading the New Testament back into the Old in order to achieve uniformity in the object of faith, both Old and New Testaments clearly testify to salvation by faith in Christ alone. Someone once likened the procedure to entering a room full of furniture but with the lights off (Old Testament). Everything is seen only dimly. But now that Christ has come, the lights are switched on, and all becomes clear (New Testament). Although, therefore, there are two dispensations of God’s saving grace, there is only one salvation.
Let us see how Calvin demonstrates that the Lord Jesus was opaquely and partially revealed under the Law, or Old Dispensation, but is now clearly and fully revealed in the New.
The Unity of the Two Dispensations
The promise of Christ to come, says Calvin, was present throughout the Old Testament period. Towards its close, the people’s expectation was heightened by Malachi’s prediction: ‘the sun of righteousness shall arise’ (Mal. 4:2). By these words, comments Calvin, God teaches us that while the law held the godly in expectation of Christ’s coming, his actual arrival would bring them more light. It is as if they saw him afar off, while we see him near. John the Baptist links the two dispensations, marking the end of one and the beginning of the other.
This arrangement means that the Old and New Testament revelations are held together by the one Covenant of Grace, which embraces ‘all men adopted by God into the company of his people.’ There is not only similarity; there is also real continuity between them. Though real differences do exist, such patriarchs as Abraham ‘participated in the same inheritance’ as New Testament believers. The covenant made with them ‘is so much like ours in substance . . . that the two are actually one and the same.’ They differ ‘only in the mode of dispensation.’
This means that the way of salvation – by the grace of God in Christ Jesus – has always been the same, and becomes ours by the same believing appropriation that Abraham exercised. Contrary to modern Dispensationalist teaching, there is not one way of salvation in the Old Testament (i.e. by works) and another in the New (i.e. by faith), but both Old and New Testament believers know Christ as Mediator, through whom they are ‘joined to God’ and ‘share in his promises.’
This truth unfolds a further observation. Old Testament saints looked for eternal blessedness as much as New Testament saints. God’s people before Christ did not seek merely material and earthly blessings; they, like us, looked for a city that has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. ‘The Old Testament or Covenant that the Lord had made with the Israelites had not been limited to earthly things, but contained a promise of spiritual and eternal life.’ The same promise – that God would be their God and ours – pertains to us both. As the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, he is not the God of the dead, but of the living. Just like us, Old Testament saints ‘had Christ as pledge of their covenant’ and ‘put in him all trust of future blessedness.’
Differences between the Two Dispensations
Given the essential unity of both dispensations, Calvin next demonstrates their differences and the discontinuity between them.
The first difference is that the Lord displayed the heavenly heritage of Old Testament saints ‘under earthly benefits,’ which they could easily see and even taste. But now that the gospel has revealed it plainly, the Lord leads our minds to contemplate it directly. After laying aside the ‘lower modes of training,’ he now shows us the truth openly.
The second difference is that during the Old Dispensation, the Lord used shadows (bare, indistinct outlines), whereas now he presents us with their substance. The ineffectual ceremonies and observances of Moses are now abolished and replaced by the effectual power of the blood of Christ. The former were abrogated ‘to give place to Christ’ himself, ‘the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant.’ The entire Epistle to the Hebrews demonstrates this. This covenant never changes. It is everlasting, having attained its perfection when it was sealed by the Saviour’s blood.
The third difference is that the Old Testament form of the covenant was ‘carved on tablets of stone,’ whereas the New Testament reality is ‘written upon men’s hearts.’ The former was deliberately designed ‘to be made void, the latter to abide’ (2 Cor. 3:3-11) The prophet’s reference to a new covenant (Jer. 31-34) clearly reveals God’s intentions long before the event. But the Old Testament merely anticipates the outpouring of the Spirit on the New Testament church, whereas the gospel, on which the church is built, ‘reveals the very substance’ of God’s gracious covenant; therefore it ‘stands fast forever.’
The Law (without gospel promises) demands obedience, but it cannot change the depraved human heart. This is why Paul calls it impotent. The Law (with gospel promises) points to Christ, and even preaches salvation by him. But the gospel, bringing the Law to completion, can and does change men’s hearts. This is why it is called ‘the power of God unto salvation.’
The fourth difference between the two dispensations consists in their opposite effects in men’s consciences. Scripture calls the Old Testament one of ‘bondage,’ because it held men in fear – fear of God’s wrath for failing to keep his commandments. By contrast, it describes the New Testament as one of ‘freedom,’ because, says Calvin, ‘it lifts them to trust and assurance.’ Here he cites Paul’s allegory between Sarah and Hagar (Gal. 4:22-31). ‘To sum up: the Old Testament struck consciences with fear and trembling, but by the benefit of the New they are released into joy.’
The fifth and final difference ‘lies in the fact that, until the advent of Christ, the Lord set apart one nation, within which to confine the covenant of grace.’ But now that ‘the fulness of time has come,’ the wall that for so long kept God’s mercy within the borders of Israel has been ‘broken down,’ and peace is announced to both those who are afar off (the Gentiles) and those who are near (the Jews), so that together they might be reconciled to God and welded into one people, the true New Testament Israel. Therefore there is now no difference between Jew and Gentile. Here is true Biblical universalism. The Gospel of grace is for all nations, and is to be preached to all.
On this glorious note, Calvin closes his consideration of the two dispensations of God’s glorious grace.
Taken with permission from Peace & Truth 2013:1, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union.
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