All who are familiar with the study of dispensationalism know that one of the most important purposes of such a study is to answer the question as to when the current work of God began. “When did God begin this great dispensation of grace in which we live?” we might ask ourselves. “When was it that God began dealing with men and with the nations totally and exclusively in grace? When did the mystery of Ephesians 3 take effect, and all nations start to hold an equal standing before God? When did Christ choose to no longer center Himself and His work among the Israelites, but instead among all the nations equally?” For the answers to these questions are crucial to understanding God’s work today, what the scope of it is, and what the purpose of it is.
Yet there is another question that every honest dispensationalist must ask himself. This question too is one of importance. It should be clear that, just as we need to answer the question “when did the dispensation of grace begin?” we must also search for an answer to the opposite question, “when will the present work of God end?” In other words, when does this current dispensation of the grace of God draw to a close, and God begin once again that kingdom work that He had begun in the time of Christ and the apostles? Thus I have written this message, and will herein examine this very important question.
I have entitled this message, “The End of Grace.” In some ways this was done to grab the reader’s attention. I am well aware that God’s grace will never end, for He is the God of every grace, and every blessing we enjoy throughout eternity will be a result of it. Never will we earn the blessings we receive from God. Yet I also know that God’s current dispensation of grace, the day in which God always and only acts in grace and never in judgment or government or fairness, will not last forever. It will not always be His policy to always respond in acts of love and favor to mankind, whether to the wicked or to the righteous, for if it was, His great promises of a kingdom and a reward to the righteous could never come to pass. So God’s grace as a concept and as a part of Him will never end, but this dispensation of grace will, and that is what I am referring to as the “end of grace.” Yet when will this end be, and how will it come about?
The great truths of this dispensation are piled one on top of another in Ephesians 3. Surely no passage in Scripture is more valuable for revealing to us God’s present work than this one. And it is here that we read, “Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; and to make all men see what is the fellowship (dispensation) of the mystery (secret), which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, Who created all things by Jesus Christ: to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places (among heavenly authorities) might be known by the church (the ekklesia) the manifold wisdom of God, according to the eternal (eonian) purpose which He purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord: in Whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him.”
In this passage we learn many things about the current work of God. First of all, we learn that only Paul was given the grace of God to set forth the current “fellowship” (oikonomia or house-law) of God, which is His secret dispensation. In other words, God manages His house now totally in secret. In verse 2 we learned the important fact that this is the dispensation of the grace of God, and so we see the two great truths of God’s present working…it is in grace, and it is in secret. The idea that God is currently silent is offensive to some. I was talking to a girl just this week about it, and she seemed quite offended by the idea that God says nothing to us today except through His Word. Many seem unwilling to accept this, but it remains the truth. It is not that God does not work, but only that He does His work in secret through a secret dispensation. Moreover, this dispensation is guided only by the gracious nature of God, and never by His inherent judgment. I may be the most righteous believer on earth, but this will not earn me the blessing of God any more than any other believer. I may be the most sinful believer on earth, but this will not earn me His wrath any more than any other believer. All of God’s gifts are offered graciously to all. If God cannot act graciously, then He does not act. If He cannot act secretly, then He does not act. These are the important truths that will so clarify God’s present workings in our minds.
But we cannot dwell too much on these great truths lest we miss our subject. Let us return to Ephesians 3 and verse 9. We learn that the secret dispensation was hidden from all previous revealers of God’s Word, so no mention of it is made earlier in Scripture. Moreover in verse 11 we learn that the whole of this plan is not a different purpose from the one upon which God worked in the past, but it is all according to the same, eternal purpose which He has ever been at work accomplishing. But let us look back at verse 10, for in this very important verse we learn why God brought in this hidden and gracious dispensation rather than the long-predicted Kingdom. We here read that His plan for today was “to the intent that now unto the principalities and powers among the heavenly (authorities) might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God.” This is God’s intent in all this: to make known His wisdom. He desires to show through a dispensation beyond human understanding and comprehension the extent of His wisdom. We cannot see the workings of God today. All we see is chaos and disorder and pain. We do not see the grace of God over-ruling the intents and desires of men. We do not see His hand holding the world together lest it tear itself to shreds. We do not see the behind-the-scenes working of His power which every day preserves mankind. But those among the heavenly beings see it, and learn the truth about God’s wisdom. Moreover we too will someday see it when God reveals these things to us. Then looking back on our lives we will see the secret hand of God as we cannot see it today. We will see how futile were our guesses when we tried to see in vain His hand as it worked its way in our lives. But at that time the wisdom of God in this silent, secret management will be as plain to us as it is to the heavenly authorities, for, as this book promises, Christ has raised us up and made us to sit together among those same heavenly authorities in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:6).
It would seem that this great display of grace and wisdom should have some suitable ending. For almost two thousand years God has played a secret symphony of grace on the earth heard only by those heavenly beings looking on and marveling at His wisdom. Yet someday, perhaps soon, that song must end, and how it ends seems very important. It is clear to us that God, true to His nature, must satisfy both sides of His character. If His characteristic of grace is to be shown forth for thousands of years, then His characteristic of judgment must be equally demonstrated so that the completeness of His glory might be known. So it is the conclusion of many that the end of the great display of God’s grace will mark the beginning of the great display of His government, that is, His Kingdom on the earth. I believe that this is correct. Yet how shall the first of these great symphonies blend into the next? We know that the display of God’s government ends in the victorious new heavens and earth, wherein God moves His very seat of operations from heaven to earth and dwells forever among the creatures He redeemed by His blood. This great triumph is worthy of being the conclusion of His display of governmental power. Yet what equally great display would be worthy of marking the end of His gracious management? What final climax would underscore and bring to a victorious close this long and wondrous dispensation?
To answer this question we must turn to the passage God has given us dealing with this subject. It is useless for us to turn to any book previous to Ephesians to find this answer, for as we have already seen in Ephesians 3 above no-one before this time knew of the current work God would be doing. Therefore to find the answer to this question we must turn to what we might call the apocalypse of the dispensation of grace, which is in II Timothy 3. Let us examine this very important chapter verse-by-verse together.
1. This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come.
The term “last days” has caused many to experience great difficulties, for many notice that some prophecies of the last days seem to predict a terrible time, whereas others predict a great and glorious time. In Acts 2:17 we read that “’it shall come to pass in the last days,’ says God, ‘I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh.” The remainder of this prophecy lists many wonderful and glorious things that will take place in these “last days,” and indeed we could very much wish that they were upon us even now. Yet there are also passages like the one before us in II Timothy that seem to indicate that the last days will be terrible. How can these both be true?
The answer lies in the meaning of “last.” “Last” in the New Testament does not always mean the very last in duration, but rather indicates the result of something that has gone before. “The last state of that man will be worse than the first” Christ says of the demon-possessed man, and He is speaking of the state of the man resulting from the demons returning and finding nothing done to prevent their moving right back in. Thus the state of the man resulting from the casting out is worse than the first. In the same way “last days” are days that result from what has gone before. You might say that the American Revolution, for example, was the “last days” of the British policy of taxation without representation. For this policy resulted in the revolt of the people who might have been satisfied to remain British subjects forever were it not for that ill-fated decision of the King of England to keep that policy in place. So the “last days” in Scripture are days that result from what came before. I have discussed this in detail in my message on “Bins for Bible Prophecies Part 3: The Last Days.”
Thus we see the difference in the different “last days” references. The “last days” of Acts 2 are the days resulting from God’s long work and dealing with Israel. This work results in the glorious fulfillment of all God’s promises and the absolute redemption of mankind.
But these words in II Timothy do not speak of the result of God’s plan in dealing with man in government, but rather the result of His dealing with man in grace. For Isaiah tells us “Let grace be shown to the wicked, yet he will not learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:10, NKJV.) Thus the result of God’s dispensation of grace will be that the wicked will not learn to be righteous. We will see that this is indeed the case as we continue through II Timothy 3.
The use of the words “perilous times” seems to relate to our day more than any other. At no other time in history have we been as capable of the destruction of the majority of life on earth as we are now. With the mere touch of a button some man could set in motion the events that could destroy a great number of the nations on earth. While we may not be capable of destroying the earth ten times over, as alarmists in Hollywood have repeatedly claimed, it remains true that our days are indeed perilous above any others! Let us read on and see how else these words might apply specifically to our day, and to the last days of the dispensation of grace.
2. For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy,
3. unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good,
4. traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,
5. having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!
This is a very interesting list, as it tells us the character of men in the last days. Some of these characteristics have always been true of men. Some things stick out in my mind, however, as being particularly relevant to our current situation. The biggest one in my mind is the characteristic of “disobedient to parents.” This must have seemed like a strange thing to men of the past. The idea that children in general could be disobedient to their parents seemed like a far-fetched thing to them. Oh, there would always be the “bad kids,” of course, who would cause trouble and bring shame on their parents and their community. But children in general loved and respected their parents, and generally wanted to be like them. The idea that all children would generally be disobedient to their parents seemed near impossible to men in past ages. There were attempts to tone this phrase back, in fact, in order to explain away this idea, that children could ever be generally rebellious against their parents.
Yet look at us now! Not only are children in general disobedient, but parents now seem to expect it as if it were normal. That children will become obstinate and disobedient at some point in their lives seems to be the accepted norm, and is shrugged off as only to be expected. And what is common in this country has swept across other countries and even across the world, as parents in general wonder what the younger generation is coming to. How could such a vast and unprecedented change occur? I suppose we could all point to some of the factors that have brought it about. But the fact is that this seems to point to our having entered the last days that Paul is talking about in II Timothy. Could it be that we are very near to the end of this long dispensation of grace?
But let us continue on.
6. For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts,
7. Always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
The advent of television and the corrupt and corrupting programming that it brings “creeping” into households seems to fit this prophecy to a “t”. Then we could speak of the Internet and the many vile and sinful things it can bring into our lives at the touch of a button. There are many ways that corrupt men can creep into households and lead the women who are gullible astray into sins and lusts, and it seems that there never have been more ways for this to happen than there are today.
8. Now as Jannes and Jambres resisted Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, disapproved concerning the faith;
This is grave condemnation of these men. They are disapproved concerning the faith. Could it be that this means that these characteristics describe those who are believers, or at least who claim to be? It may be, and many have come to this conclusion. Yet these are not believers who are approved of God. Rather, they are disapproved concerning the faith they claim. Yet now God will reveal to us how this will all end and the wicked acts of these men of the last days will be terminated.
9. but they will progress no further, for their folly will be manifest to all, as theirs also was.
The folly of the last days men will come to an end suddenly. It seems here that we are face-to-face with the end of the dispensation of grace. The men of the last days have been proceeding in their wicked ways, when suddenly a manifestation of truth takes place. This manifestation stops them in their tracks by showing all men the folly of their actions. Yet how can this be? We know that in our dispensation of grace wicked men flourish. Atheists and humanists and evolutionists and other opponents of God speak their false philosophies boldly all their lives, and yet never is their wicked testimony shown for what it is and brought to a stop. The grace of God does not allow Him to interfere and put to the lie their false teaching concerning Him. Yet it would seem that the free reign of these wicked men ends suddenly. It does not come by men slowly coming to realize the truth about them. It does not come by some coming to a realization of the truth and spreading it to others who still believe the lie. Rather it comes suddenly, by a mass revelation to many people at once. This would appear to be the end of the dispensation of the secret, as God ends His silence and speaks the truth once again.
Many think that this dispensation will end in the outpouring of God’s wrath. They view God as if He were like some sort of caged gorilla, pacing around angrily while men poke fun at him, at last crying out His rage and bending his bars to break free and wreak havok. Yet is this really how God will end the display of His grace? By breaking His silence with snarls of revenge and fury? This would seem to negate the very message God was trying to get across in this age…the unfathomable depths of His lovingkindness and mercy. But no one can effectively display the depths of his patience if he ends the display with a great act of impatience. And God cannot effectively end His dispensation of grace by capping it off with a great act of wrath. Indeed, no act of judgment would suffice to end this display of grace. Only an even greater act of grace could possibly emphasize the eternal patience and longsuffering that God has demonstrated through the last two thousand years of history. Only one act could finalize this long display of secret grace. That would be the act of bringing that long cloak of secrecy to an end and displaying for all mankind to see the grace of God. Only removing the veil and revealing the truth for all the world to view it would be an act fit to close His present dealings. And it would seem that it is this act that is set forth here in II Timothy.
But this raises many questions. What exactly is set forth in this great revelation? What is its result? Is this the only thing that God does at this time, or is it accompanied by other great acts of His? We will examine these and other questions in my next message.