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Question and Answer

Historic Premillennialism and Dispensationalism


I found your website today by doing a search for denominations. I am trying to understand the eschatology patterns among different denominations. Could you explain to me what is meant by "historic" premillennialism? How and why is dispensationalism considered by the OPC to be a serious error?


You ask a couple of good questions. I presume you have some knowledge of the three basic views on millennialism, but just to be sure, let me sketch them:

  1. PRE-millennialism says that the second coming of Christ occurs before a literal thousand-year millennial reign of Christ on earth, followed by the last judgment and the eternal state.
  2. POST-millennialism means that the return of Christ comes after the millennium.
  3. A-millennialism means that the millennium is not a literal thousand years, but a symbol connoting the reign of the saints who have died in Christ and now live and reign with Him in heaven. So the millennium is enjoyed by members of the "church triumphant" in heaven before the coming of Christ.

It is my impression that the postmillennialists do not necessarily hold to a literal thousand-year millennium, but they differ from premills in their belief that the gospel will triumph sometime before the end of this age, leading to a golden age of truth and righteousness over all the world before the Lord comes.

Both premills and postmills believe that Christ's coming will be accompanied by a general resurrection of all the dead, followed by the final judgment and entrance into the final state. Now about the two distinctive premillennial views. The historic premills (generally those before J. N. Darby, followed by C. I. Scofield and his Scofield Bible) hold to the "rapture" view of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that only the righteous will be raised when Christ comes and that the wicked dead would be raised and judged after the millennium.

The dispensational premills, following Scofield, added a seven-year period between the second coming and the beginning of the millennium. In the middle of that interim (of seven years) the Antichrist will emerge bringing on the great tribulation and leading to a return to the pre-Christian ceremonies of the Mosaic law. In the dispensational view, during the millennium the saints live and reign with Christ and the Jews rule on earth. The historic premills, however, reject these additions.

I am not clear on all the details of that difference, but the historic premills reject any return to or reinstatement of the ceremonial law.

And why does the OPC regard dispensationalism as a serious error? In the main because it is contrary to the biblical doctrine of the covenant.

The Bible teaches two covenants: the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. In the Covenant of Works God created mankind under one federal head—Adam. Romans 5:12 tells us that when Adam sinned, all mankind descending from him by natural generation sinned in him and fell with him. The Covenant of Grace was instituted to deliver out of those under the curse of Adam's sin a new humanity with a new head—Jesus Christ.

Romans 5:13-19 compares and contrasts the two covenants and their results through the actions of their heads: Adam brought sin and misery leading to death; Christ brought redemption from that sin and its curse leading to life.

This is also taught in 1 Corinthians 15, the great chapter on the resurrection of Christ leading to the resurrection of His people. Notice that in verse 22 we are told that all who die, die in Adam, and all who are made alive are made alive in Christ. Later, verses 45-49 again deal with the relation between the two covenant heads and the contrast between them. ("Adam" in Hebrew means "man.") In v. 47 the first man was surely Adam, made from earth (Gen. 2:7); the second man was Christ, "the Lord from heaven."

We all were born in Adam (except Jesus, who was born of a virgin, and not by natural generation). By way of contrast, 2 Corinthians 5:17 says that "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature (or a new creation)...." This is the heart of the Scripture teaching.

Old Testament covenants, we believe, are but administrations of the one covenant of grace. Even the book of Hebrews, which exalts the contrast between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, does not utterly divide them. "And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect" (11:39-40). Add to that Galatians 3:28, "There is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile] ...; for we are all one in Christ Jesus."

Dispensationalism divides what God has put together. It is difficult to define dispensationalism precisely because, especially after the demise of the original Scofield Reference Bible, dispensationalists have differed in many ways. The core of dispensationalism, however, continues to be that the Old Testament people of God are distinct from the New Testament church.

And though modern dispensationalists admit that the OT people are saved by the grace of Christ's cross (and that is good!), yet God's dealing with them is on the basis of law-keeping rather than grace. Whether there be seven dispensations (as Scofield taught) or but two (as some hold today), the separation between Jew and Gentile is deep and bordering on the absolute. That's what makes them distinguish between the church and Israel, saying that the church is not in the Old Testament. But, I say, how can one make that claim when the book of Isaiah is full of prophecies of the church?

I don't want to overstate the issue, but I think the principal issue between us is their emphasis that Law is predominant in the OT and Grace in the NT. But there is great grace in the Old Testament, and law is not ignored in the New. Romans 3:19-20 clearly says that the Law doesn't save, but Law is the servant of grace because, "by the law is the knowledge of sin." Then follows that great passage on justification. Then notice that, in chapter 4, the Apostle attributes justifying faith to Abraham!

Just one more thing: All dispensationalists justify building their millennial belief on their interpretation of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. From this passage they claim two coming resurrections from the dead—the righteous at the second coming and the wicked in Revelation 20:11-15. They completely ignore two things: Revelation 20 teaches that ALL the dead are raised at one time (cf. John 5:28-29), and Paul's teaching on the resurrection in 1 Thessalonians carries over into chapter 5:1-11.

The Apostle goes on in the next chapter to describe anything but a "secret rapture"! Furthermore, the Apostle's reason for not mentioning the resurrection of the wicked in chapter 4 was the question as to the present condition of the believing dead in v. 13. He ends that portion with words of comfort in v. 18. But continuing his teaching on the second coming of Christ, he ends that segment in chapter 5 in v. 11: "Therefore encourage one another ...."

This has been a long answer. I could have shortened it with answers without Scriptural support, but speaking for the OPC requires more that saying why and where we differ with other believers. I feel obliged to ground our convictions in Scripture, for, without that, we merely spout opinions! And one word from God is better than a thousand opinions.

In saying this, we in the OPC do not pass judgment on our dispensational brothers. Our differences are honest differences, but if their hope is in Christ and Christ alone, we rejoice with them in a seeking and saving God.

Please feel free to come back for more specific answers.

About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

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