MAJOR BIBLE THEMES
Louis Sperry Chafer
"Bible doctrines are the bones of
revelation and the attentive Bible student must be
impressed with the New Testament emphasis on sound
doctrine (Matt. 7:28; John 7:16, 17; Acts 2:42; Rom.
6:17; Eph. 4:14; 1 Tim. 1:3; 4:6, 16; 6:1; 2 Tim.
3:10, 16; 4:2, 3; 2 John 1:9, 10)."
~ Dr. Louis Sperry Chafer ~
The studies presented
herein are a continuation
of Major Bible Themes which, Lord willing, will
eventually be presented
in its entirety. Major Bible Themes may serve as a wonderful outline for personal or group
Links to previous studies in the series may be found in our
pages. ~ editor
probable that the recognition of the dispensations
sheds more light on the
whole message of the Scriptures than any other
aspect of Bible study."
As to time, the
Bible may be apportioned into well-deﬁned periods. These
periods are clearly separated and the recognition of their
divisions with their divine purposes constitutes one of the
important factors in true interpretation of the Scriptures.
These divisions of time are termed dispensations, which word
is somewhat different than the word "age" in that the word
"age" is more general, being used of any brief division of
time or generation of men, though the word "age" is rightly
used as synonymous with the word "dispensation."
It is probable that the recognition of the dispensations
sheds more light on the whole message of the Scriptures than
any other aspect of Bible study. Often the ﬁrst clear
understanding of the dispensations and God's revealed
purposes in them results in the beginning of useful Bible
knowledge and in the fostering of a personal interest in the
Bible itself. Man's relation to God is not the same in every
age. It has been necessary to bring fallen man into divine
testing. This, in part, is God's purpose in the ages, and
the result of the testings is in every case an
unquestionable demonstration of the utter failure and
sinfulness of man. In the end, every mouth will have been
stopped because every assumption of the human heart will
have proven its unwisdom and wickedness by centuries of
Each dispensation, therefore, begins with man divinely
placed in a new position of privilege and responsibility,
and closes with the failure of man resulting in righteous
judgments from God. While there are certain abiding facts
such as the holy character of God which are of necessity the
same in every age, there are varying instructions and
responsibilities which are, as to their application, limited
to a given period.
In this connection, the Bible student must recognize the
difference between a primary and a secondary application of
the Word of God. Only those portions of the Scriptures which
are directly addressed to the child of God under grace are
to be given a personal or primary application. All such
instructions he is expected to perform in detail. In the
matter of a secondary application it should be observed
that, while there are spiritual lessons to be drawn from
every portion of the Bible, it does not follow that the
Christian is appointed by God to conform to those governing
principles which were the will of God for people of other
dispensations. The child of God under grace is not situated
as was Adam, or Abraham, or the Israelites when under the
Law; nor is he called upon to follow that peculiar manner of
life which according to the Scriptures will be required of
men when the King shall have returned and set up His kingdom
on the earth.
Since the child of God depends wholly on the instructions
contained in the Bible for his direction in daily life, and
since the principles obtaining in the various dispensations
are so diverse, and at times even contradictory, it is
important that he shall recognize those portions of the
Scriptures which directly apply to him if he is to realize
the will of God and the glory of God. In considering the
whole testimony of the Bible it is almost as important for
the believer who would do the will of God to recognize that
which does not concern him as it is for him to recognize
that which does concern him. It is obvious that, apart from
the knowledge of dispensational truth, the believer will not
be intelligently adjusted to the present purpose and will of
God in the world. Such knowledge alone will save him from
assuming the hopeless legality of the dispensation that is
past or from undertaking the impossible world-transforming
program belonging to the dispensation which is to come.
Because of imperfect translations, some important truth is
hidden to the one who reads only the English text of the
Bible. This is illustrated by the fact that the Greek word
aion, which means an age, or dispensation, is forty
times translated by the English word "world." Thus when it
is stated in Matthew 13:49, So
shall it be in the end of the world, there is
reference not to the end of the material earth, which in due
time must come (2 Pet. 3:7; Rev. 20:11; Isa. 66:.22), but
rather to the end of this age. The end of the world is not
drawing near, but the end of the age is. According to the
Scriptures there are in all seven major dispensations and it
is evident that we are now living in the extreme end of the
sixth. The kingdom age of a thousand years (Rev. 20:4, 6) is
yet to come.
A dispensation is more or less marked off by the new divine
appointment and responsibilities with which it begins and by
the divine judgments with which it ends.
The seven dispensations
1. The Dispensation of Innocence.
The duration of this period is unrevealed. It began with the
creation of man, was characterized by those conditions which
obtained in the time of man's innocence, it includes the sin
of man and ends with a divine judgment by which man received
a sentence from God and was expelled from Eden (Gen. 1:28 to
2. The Dispensation of Conscience.
Possessed with the knowledge of both good and evil, man, for
about eighteen hundred years, was required to act according
to his own conscience - choosing the good and rejecting the
evil. His failure is recorded in the history of that period.
In this time man became so wicked that the age was closed
with the judgment of the ﬂood (Gen. 3:22 to 7:23).
3. The Dispensation of Human Government.
Continuing more than four hundred years, the history of this
dispensation records that man was given the new
responsibility of government in the earth with the power of
taking human life (Gen. 9:1-8), which power has never been
withdrawn. Man's failure to govern for God and his success
in governing for himself is seen in the ungodly assumptions
with which the age ended. The divine judgment on this age
was the confusion of tongues (Gen. 8:20 to 11:9).
4. The Dispensation of Promise.
In this period of more than four hundred years, extending
from the call of Abraham to the giving of the law at Sinai,
the new nation which began with Abraham is alone in view. By
the terms of this dispensation they are under the gracious
promise and covenants of Jehovah with varied instructions as
to their relation to God, to the land of promise, and as to
their walk before God. The period ends with that people in
bondage in Egypt from which they are delivered by the mighty
hand of God (Gen. 12:1 to Exod. 19:8).
5. The Dispensation of the Law.
This lengthened period began with Israel's assumption of the
law at Mount Sinai (Exod. 19:8), was characterized by ﬁfteen
hundred years of unfaithfulness and broken law, and
terminates with the Great Tribulation in the earth. Its
course was interrupted by the death of Christ and the
thrusting in of the hitherto unannounced age of the church.
Thus the church age, while complete in itself, is
parenthetical within the age of the law. At the removal of
the Church when the Lord comes again to receive His own, the
law age will be resumed and continue for that period known
as Daniel's seventieth week (Dan. 9:24-27) - which week is
generally conceded to be seven years.* Israel's judgments
began with her dispersions, were continued in the
destruction of Jerusalem and her ﬁnal scattering among the
Gentiles, and will end with that hour of her greatest afﬂictions
in the coming tribulation. The greatest of her sins is the
rejection of her Messiah at the ﬁrst advent of Christ.
* (In determining the dispensation to which the Tribulation
period belongs, it should be observed that it bears no
relation to the features of this church age, nor has it the
characteristics of a dispensation in itself. Though it is
the consummation of divine judgment upon all men and their
institutions, it is especially Israelitish. The continuity
of that Jewish age which began at Sinai is incomplete apart
from the events which belong to the Great Tribulation. As
stated by Daniel, the seventieth week is required for the ﬁnishing
of Israel's transgression and the bringing in of everlasting
righteousness (Dan. 9:24-27). The transgression to be "ﬁnished"
could be no part of this age of grace, but is rather of the
preceding age. The fact that the general features which
obtain in the Tribulation are similar to those principles
which were peculiar to the law age is also conclusive. The
sabbath is re-established (Matt. 24:20), the temple worship
is renewed - though in unbelief - (Matt. 24:15; 2 Thess.
2:4), the Old Testament kingdom-hope will again be announced
(Matt. 24:14), and the legal principle of merit and reward
for endurance will again obtain throughout that brief period
(Matt. 24:13). Not only does the law dispensation require
the yet future Tribulation period for the execution of those
divine judgements which belong to it, but, by the
recognition of the sequence connecting these two periods of
time, the continuity of purpose is preserved wherein the
Messianic, earthly kingdom, which follows the Tribulation,
is seen to be both the legitimate expectation and the
logical consummation of the dispensation of the law. By so
much it may be observed that the present unforeseen
dispensation of grace is wholly parenthetical within the
dispensation of the law.)
6. The Dispensation of the Church.
Beginning with the death of Christ and the day of Pentecost,
a new responsibility is imposed on all men - both Jews and
Gentiles. This responsibility is personal and calls for the
acceptance by each individual of the grace of God toward
sinners as it has been provided in Christ, with good works
as the fruit of salvation. While the primary purpose of God
in this dispensation will be perfectly accomplished in the
gathering out of the Church, the course and end of this age
is characterized by an apostate church and a Christ
rejecting world. The judgment will be personal as has been
the responsibility. The dispensation of the Church continues
from the cross of Christ and the advent of the Spirit to
Christ's coming again to receive His own.
7. The Dispensation of the Kingdom.
As predicted in all the Scriptures, Christ will return to
this earth and reign sitting on the throne of David. In that
time Israel's covenants will be fulﬁlled and her earthly
blessings will overﬂow. However, the age ends with a revolt
against God and the judgment of ﬁre from heaven (Rev.
20:7-9). The duration of this dispensation is clearly
declared to be a thousand years (Rev. 20:4, 6), or from the
second coming of Christ to the new heaven and the new earth.
As there was a dateless period before the creation of man in
which there was both heaven and earth, so there will be a
new heaven and a new earth after all dispensations have
1. According to the
Scriptures into how many major divisions is time divided?
2. Deﬁne the meaning of the words "dispensation" and "age."
3. What is the value of dispensational distinctions in Bible
4. What is the divine purpose in the dispensation?
5. How is the beginning and the end of each dispensation
6. What is the primary and what is a secondary application
7. What relation does the believer sustain to the age of the
law and its governing principles?
8. What lessons may be drawn from portions of the Bible
which are subject to a secondary application?
9. Are we drawing near the end of the world?
10. Describe the ﬁrst four dispensations.
a. Into what two portions of time is the age of the law
b. What evidence is there that the period of the Great
Tribulation is the continuance and completion of the age of
12. What is the primary divine purpose in the dispensation
of the church?
a. What will characterize its ending?
b. Are its judgments national, or personal?
14. Describe the age of the kingdom.
Themes herein presented is its first edition
(copyright 1926), is in the public domain, and may be
freely downloaded in its entirety or chapter by chapter
Information for purchase
of the revised edition by John F. Walvoord (copyright
1974) may be found at the same address.
Dr. Louis Sperry Chafer (1871-1952)
was the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary, and from
1924 until his death, served as the its first President
and Professor of Systematic Theology. His
ground-breaking eight volume Systematic Theology,
first published in 1947-1948,
was the first systematization of a premillennial,
dispensational interpretation of the Scriptures.
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