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A Dispensational Perspective: L. S. Chafer's Postponed Ethics

While not all contemporary Dispensationalists agree with everything Chafer said in his Systematic Theology, his work has provided, in terms of academic influence, the formative structure for students entrenched in Dispensationalism, although C. I. Scofield's Reference Bible has undoubtedly had more influence on a popular level. Even some modifications to Chafer's system by present-day Dispensationalists have not altered the basic structure. This is because the main premise of Dispensationalism depends on certain "distinctions" and "order of events" that cannot be substantially modified without causing the entire structure to crumble.

As we approach Chafer's ethical perspective we are immediately confronted with his peculiar prophetic outlook. In his system, even ethics is eschatologically qualified, for his rigid premillennialism controls all aspects of his systematic theology. Chafer's ethical outlook is totally dependent on certain assumptions regarding the prophetic future. If the Scriptures reveal that any one of the supporting pillars of his system is mistaken, his whole Israel-centered eschatology must fall to the ground.

Three Ages and Three Rules of Life

Chafer felt that most ethical treatments had ignored "obvious distinctions."208 These "distinctions," as Chafer perceived them, were comprised of "three major ages": (1) the past Mosaic age, (2) the present church age, and, (3) the future "kingdom age."209 "There are, then," according to Chafer, "three separate and distinct systems of divine government disclosed in the scriptures, corresponding to three separate and distinct ages to be governed."210

In his view, any discussion of "the believer's rule of life" belongs to the second, or middle age. This age, or church era, is "an intercalation - a period thrust in which is wholly unrelated to that which went before and to that which follows."211 While he saw considerable continuity between ages one and three, he was adamant in his view that the church age has nothing to do with the other two ages.212 We will now examine Chafer's view of the church age.

The Relationship of Judaism to Christianity

Chafer boldly asserted that "Judaism is not the bud which blossomed into Christianity."213 Much could be said to refute this assertion,214 but we will focus on one crucial passage in John 4. Jesus told the Samaritan woman, "you worship you know not what: we know what we worship: for [the] salvation is of [Greek ek] the Jews" (v. 20-24). Jesus is clearly referring to the "salvation" of which "the prophets have inquired and searched diligently" (1 Pet. 1:9-10). His reference to "the Jews" indicates that salvation in the Messianic age had been foretold in the Old Testament: "Indeed, all the prophets from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these [gospel] days" (Acts 3:24 - cf. Luke 24:27,44). The Jews were never an eternal end in themselves, as Dispensationalists assert, but were a temporary means to a great end - even the coming of Christ (Rom. 9:5).

There is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Ages indicated in this passage. "Salvation" has its prophetical roots in the oracles of God given to the Jews (Rom. 9:4). But in the New Age in which this salvation unfolds, a new form of worship is introduced where all existing temporal customs (Jerusalem vs. Mt. Gerizim) are abolished (v. 21). The continuity is in the "Spirit of Christ" prophesying the age of grace in the Old Testament documents (1 Pet. 1:10). The discontinuity lies in the end of the Old Covenant as a legal administration (Matt. 27:51; Heb. 10:9) as a new age of spiritual maturity (sonship) replaces an age of childhood (Gal. 3:24-4:7).

The Church Age

As pointed out above, Chafer saw the age of grace as totally unrelated to the past Mosaic age as well as to his invented concept of a future kingdom age. Thus, some of his general observations about the believer's rule of life are good, but his overall ethical outlook leaves much to be desired.

He saw that the Mosaic system had,

been superseded by a new relationship which believers sustain to Christ and with it a new and higher requirement for daily living (John 1:16-17; Rom. 6:14; 7:2, 2 Cor. 3:1-18; Gal. 3:19-25; Eph. 2:15; Col. 2:14).215

However, he has not rightly defined the nature of this "new relationship," for he drives a wedge between God's people of all ages.216 Since the just have always lived by faith from Abel onwards (Heb. 10:38-11:4), the "new relationship" can only be defined in terms of the advance of redemptive history. It is the historical manifestation of Christ that brings a full disclosure of the Father (John 1:14-18). There is only one salvation. But that salvation was progressively revealed in the historical process. Thus, the just men and women of the era before Christ looked forward to the seed who would come; the saints of the era after Christ both in experience and knowledge surpass the portion of those of the old age. But this occurs, not because those in the new age are "more," justified than those of old, but because the revelation of Christ has brought more light, and the work of Christ has brought reality in the place of shadow and type (Matt. 13:17; John 1:14-18; Gal. 4:6-7; Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15). It is only in this light that we can understand what the writer of the book of Hebrews meant when he wrote,

And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (11:39-40)

There is a unity of God's people in all ages, but there was a disparity in comparative knowledge and experience. The unity is maintained and the disparity accounted for only as we see that the historical manifestation of the Word is the culmination and climax of all the promises to the fathers (Heb. 1:1; John 1:14).

Chafer was unable to rightly define the "new and higher requirement" on the Christian because of the unwarranted wedge driven between the ethics of the Old and New Eras. He states repeatedly that there is absolutely no essential ethical continuity between the first and second eras.217 But the two great commandments of the law - love to God and neighbor (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18) - on which the law and prophets hung (Matt. 7:12; 22:36-40), provide an ethical continuity from Adam to the end of history. The "New Commandment" of Christ is an old commandment in one sense (John 13:34). What makes it "New" is a strictly redemptive-historical consideration: "as I have loved you: greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:12-13). The pervasive command to love is based on the Old Testament; the commandment of Christ to love is based on a historical act of love that sealed the New Covenant (Matt. 26:28; 1 John 4:9-10). Thus, the "new and higher requirement" cannot be conceived of in terms of having nothing to do with the ethical core of the Mosaic age,218 but must be identified with the love of God in Christ - "as I have loved you." He who has the love of God poured out by the Holy Spirit in his heart fulfills whatever righteousness the law required, but could not achieve (Gal. 5:14; Rom. 13:10).

Chafer Postpones the Core of Christ's Law

Chafer stated that "the will of Christ for the believer is the law of Christ."219 That statement may seem to have a ring of truth, but it introduces a line of thought that deprives the Christian of the very core of Christ's law. That core is nothing less than the "manifesto of the King,"220 the Sermon on the Mount. For Chafer, the Sermon on the Mount belongs "to a future age."221 Why? Because he believed that Jesus' primary purpose in his "sermon" was to "offer" an immediate earthly kingdom to the Jews. Since they refused his offer, the kingdom was "postponed" until after the future "rapture" of the church. Only then will the "kingdom age" become a reality and God's "earthly" plan for Israel resume.222 It is the view first theorized by J. N. Darby, popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible, and here espoused by Chafer. It is a major tenet of the Dispensational system, and the only foundation for postulating a continuity between the old Mosaic age and their concept of a future "kingdom age." Chafer writes,

The law system is not introduced again at the beginning of the kingdom age; it is continued with certain additions directly from the Mosaic system with no reference to, or contributions from, the intercalation age . . . The Old Testament story runs directly into the kingdom age without the slightest recognition of the present age or its purpose, and that the present age is, therefore, wholly disassociated from, and contributes nothing to, the Old Testament program.223

This meant, for Chafer, that Matthew 5:1-7:29 must be parallel with the Mosaic period, and as a result Jesus' sermon is described as:

a reverting to the legal principle of the past Mosaic age . . . the teachings of the kingdom increase the burden of works of merit . . . self-earned blessing intensely legalistic . . . done meritoriously . . . and are almost wholly in disagreement with the teachings of grace.224

Chafer divides the sayings of Christ into two categories: words of "law" directed toward Israel's future "kingdom" age and words of "grace" uttered near the hour of his death and intended for the church. For the church, the injunction is "hear and believe" (John 5:24) together with "grace teachings" primarily expressed in Christ's "commandments" (John 13:16). This gospel and ethic was given to the church after the Jews "rejected" the kingdom that Christ "offered" to them. For Israel, the injunction is "hear and do" (Matt. 7:24) detailed in "these sayings of mine" and the things "I say unto you" (Matt. 5:1-7:29).225 The sayings directed toward Israel, however, are not applicable to the present age, but to a future time when God supposedly resumes his "earthly" purpose for Israel and restores their "kingdom."

This is a wholly arbitrary and unsatisfactory manner of handling the Sermon on the Mount. This Sermon constitutes the heart of the "law of Christ" for Christians, and yet Chafer has taken it out of this age and out of the realm of grace. For example, when Chafer came to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20), he asserted that "all things I have commanded you" cannot include the Sermon on the Mount, for these "legal" words of Christ are wholly of the future.226

Chafer's controlling presupposition is that Christ opened his public ministry by "offering" an earthly kingdom to the Jews. But the message of John the Baptist, Jesus himself, and the apostles is one: "repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand" (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:2-3; 2:38; 28.31). When Peter (a Jew) spoke to Cornelius' household, he clearly indicated the one gospel was (1) "sent to Israel," (2) "published throughout all Judea, and began from Galilee," and (3) now preached to the Gentiles (Acts 10:34-43). It does not take a Greek scholar to check the Englishman's Greek Concordance (pp. 320-321) to confirm that the Greek noun for "gospel" applies to but one evangelistic message - the gospel that began with the manifestation of Christ. For example, in Mark 1:1 the word "gospel" has reference to the very beginning of Jesus' ministry, while the same word in Mark 16:15 deals with history until the very end of the age. Splitting Christ's message between an alleged parenthetical church age and future kingdom age cannot be sustained exegetically, and inevitably results in twisted interpretations of Scripture.

Chafer felt that the expression "hear and do" (Matt. 7:24) had to be legal and "opposed to grace." But the New Testament obviously does not feel such a tension. Paul taught that God's vengeance is coming upon all who "obey not the gospel" (2 Thess. 1:8). Such terminology as "obedient to the faith," therefore, does not cast any aspersion on the purely gracious character of the gospel. Christ said that "he that does the will of my Father who is in heaven" is the one who qualifies for admittance into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21). Chafer assigns these words to a future age as "self-earned blessing." And yet, virtually the same words were expressed by John when he wrote "he that does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:17) - a message clearly addressed to those under grace.

For Paul, all of Christ's words formed a "canon" by which any teaching should be judged (1 Tim. 6:3). There is no evidence that he deemed some of Jesus' sayings as belonging to a future age and therefore unsuitable for the church. He certainly has believers in mind when he cites the "words of the Lord Jesus, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'" (Acts 20:35). And yet, those words are strikingly similar in tone to the Sermon on the Mount. Some have even referred to this saying as the "ninth Beatitude." Are these precious words of Christ a part of the artificial "legal" corpus reserved for another time? Of course not! Chafer's unnatural division of Christ's words into "gracious" (for the church) and "legal" (for Israel's future kingdom age) cannot be sustained except by extraordinary hermeneutical gymnastics.

This is not to say that there are not some statements of Christ that must be qualified by their historical context. When Jesus said, "Go, show yourself to the priest" (Matt. 8:4), he was speaking as one who had performed a healing in the social environment of the Mosaic covenant. At that point, even Christ himself was "under law" (Gal. 4:4) and obligated to observe its every stipulation. The issue in these few cases, however, is not "legal" versus "gracious" words, but words of the gospel spoken in a society still "under the law."

Expounding on the Sermon on the Mount, Chafer observes, "there is never a reference to either salvation or grace. Nor is there the slightest reference to those great realities of relationship which belong to the new Creation."227 It should be obvious, however, that these precious words are applicable only to those who are in vital union with Christ (Matt. 6:8; 7:11). Wherever such union exists, its nature will not be "self-earned blessing," but free grace. Chafer is positing the impossible, that a favorable relationship between God and sinners - in any age - can be obtained through works of merit.228 Salvation always parallels Abraham's experience - by promise through faith (Rom. 4:12).

In spite of his unduly complicated and arbitrary eschatological system, Chafer does see that with the establishment of an "age of grace," a new ethical administration has come.229 Tragically, however, he destroys any possibility of understanding this new economy because he (1) completely disassociates the present age from the ethical core of the Old Testament, and (2) relegates to a future "legal" age much of Christ's ethical instruction intended for today.


Footnotes:

208. L.S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, IV, Dallas Seminary Press, 1948, p. 154.

209. Chafer, p. 155.

210. Chafer, p. 169; pp. 183, 203.

211. Chafer, p. 167.

212. Chafer, pp. 167-168.

213. Chafer, p. 24.

214. Jon Zens, Dispensationalism: A Reformed Inquiry into its Leading Figures and Features, Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1978, pp. 25-39.

215. Chafer, p. 155.

216. Chafer, p. 204.

217. Chafer,.p. 168.

218. Chafer, p. 180.

219. Chafer, p. 160.

220. Chafer, p. 177.

221. Chafer, p. 244.

222. Chafer, p. 178.

223. Chafer, pp. 167-168.

224. Chafer, pp. 155, 169, 177, 212, 216, 219, 220, 214.

225. Chafer, pp. 177-178.

226. Chafer, pp. 177, 224.

227. Chafer, p. 177.

228. Chafer, p. 216.

229. Chafer, p. 241.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 53-58.