The Vision Forum: A Dispensational Perspective (Part 2)

by Pastor Gary Freel

In a previous article, we considered Vision Forum’s (VF) teaching on limited atonement and Covenant theology. We saw that the covenants of works, grace and redemption are assumed to be based in Scripture, but biblical texts are not cited in their statement of faith to which readers may refer. These covenants, as well as VF’s teaching on limited atonement, are, at best, only inferred from a variety of biblical texts. While they claim to believe in a “literal” method of interpreting Scripture, the reality is that they are not consistent about it, which is something those of us who are traditional dispensationalists should find quite troubling about the VF ministry.1

Continuing this evaluation from a traditional dispensational perspective of the ministry of VF, our focus will be on two other points within the statement of faith. First, we will look at what they say concerning the church, both local and universal (ecclesiology). Second, we will examine their position on future things (eschatology).

The Church

The VF statement of faith reads, “There is one universal church of which Christ is the Head, made up of true believers in all places and in all times.” With most of this we would heartily agree. There is only one universal church consisting of true believers. It is worldwide in its scope. Believers from every nation where the gospel has been proclaimed and people have been saved are represented, comprising the universal church. God’s program in this church age is to take out of all nations, Jews and Gentiles, “a people for His name” (Acts 15:14).

Why are we reluctant to accept this statement in full? It is the last part that is in question. What is meant by “in all times?” Such language is ambiguous. If they mean the period known as the church age, from the day of Pentecost until the rapture, we concur. However, if VF means to include the Old Testament times or even the days when our Lord walked the earth, then we must take exception. Is this really all that important? Yes, because the statement opens the door to allow for any number of beliefs about the origin of the church, requiring a number of texts from both Testaments to be interpreted allegorically or even as metaphors. When interpreted this way, the church becomes something completely foreign to the true intent of Scripture—it becomes the “New Israel” replacing the nation of Israel. Neither the writers of Scripture nor its recipients ever viewed the true church as the replacement of Israel. Further, a misunderstanding of the nature of the church has implications on what we are called of God to do today—namely, make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ and mature them in the faith by integrating them into local churches and teaching them all the things that Christ has entrusted to us. This will enable them to pass on to the succeeding generations the faith with which they have been entrusted (2 Tim. 2:2). We are not called upon to Christianize the culture, to make nations into theocratic realms or to establish God’s kingdom.

In Ephesians 2 and 3, the apostle Paul spells out what God is now doing in the world, namely, making one new entity, the body of Christ, the church from both Jews and Gentiles. This was something that was not previously revealed in the Old Testament (Eph. 3:5). During the Old Testament period, the church was a mystery, unrevealed as to both its existence and intent. The Old Testament writers’ and readers’ focus was on the relationship between God and His people, the nation of Israel, and His plan for them both during their own time and yet future (the messianic kingdom).

This brings us to the next point in VF’s statement of faith: “The visible local church is the ordinary means of the spread of God’s kingdom and the building up of God’s people in Christ.” Again, this is something with which we can partly agree. We are to build up (“edify”) believers in the Lord. And, the venue for doing that is primarily within the local church. It is vitally important that God’s people know not just what they believe but also why they believe it and how it should impact their lives in a world hostile to Christianity. The local church is to root and ground believers in sound, healthy, vibrant Christian theology (Titus 2:1), for they are in danger of being tossed to and fro and carried about by shifting doctrinal winds all around us (Eph. 4:11-16). So, we applaud VF’s purpose statement when it declares the need to inform and educate fellow believers in precious doctrinal truths.

The concern comes with the first part of the sentence: “The visible local church is the ordinary means of the spread of God’s kingdom….” This idea of spreading some sort of divine kingdom is no where found in the New Testament, especially in terms of the duty of New Testament believers, whether individually or collectively, within local churches. While the New Testament does often speak of the kingdom of God, the context in which those references are found is critically important to consider. We believe the covenantal interpretation of these kingdom texts greatly lacks the solid exegesis and contextual consideration that a traditional dispensationalist explanation provides.

When the word kingdom is used in Scripture, it can mean one of two things, and the context often gives clues as to how it is to be understood. First, it can refer to that universal reign of God over all creation (macrocosm) (Psa. 103:19-21). Second, it can mean His rule over a specific ethnic people, Israel, during a period of time (microcosm)—either the historical mediatorial kingdom from Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19-20), until the glory of God departed from the temple in Ezekiel 8-11; or in the future, from the return of Christ to set up His millennial kingdom on into eternity future (Rev. 19:1ff; Matt. 25:31-45; 1 Cor. 15:24). The term kingdom is never used abstractly but always with concrete meaning; that is, when Scripture speaks of a kingdom, it includes the following “elements: first a ruler, with adequate authority and power; second, a realm of subjects to be ruled; and third, the actual exercise of the function of rulership” (Alva J. McClain, The Greatness of the Kingdom, p. 17).

The church is not the kingdom. Neither is the church the kingdom in mystery form. The church presently exists within the parameters of the universal kingdom of God; however, the messianic kingdom is not yet established on this earth. In fact, that divine program is temporarily set aside, in abeyance (Rom. 11:5-32), to await future restoration (Matt. 19:28; Acts 3:19-21).

When the New Testament refers to believers in this church age and the kingdom of God, the universal, eternal kingdom is often the intended application today (Acts 28:31; Col. 1:13) or even our role in that yet future mediatorial kingdom that will one day be established when Christ returns. Notice, however, that the New Testament never commands any believer to attempt to establish or “bring in” the kingdom of God.

This idea of “spreading the kingdom” throughout the world is not how the early church understood its purpose. And, if that supposedly were its purpose, a look at church history shows that, for the most part, the church would be regarded as a miserable failure in this endeavor to bring about a worldwide kingdom of God. When kingdoms were established “in Christ’s name,” they were often corrupt and evil from the leadership on down (e.g., the Crusades, the Inquisition and even parts of the Reformation in Europe). The last 200 plus years of history in the United States have been an anomaly in world history, especially in terms of religious freedom and the opportunity to spread the gospel of Christ both here and abroad. Throughout history, most governments have been intolerant of the Christian faith. While many of our Founding Fathers were not what we would consider Bible-believing Christians, most had a healthy respect for the Word of God. At the same time, they actually tried to keep religion and politics separate. Recalling the horrors experienced at the hands of “religious” leaders during previous generations, they gave us a constitutional republic in which every effort was made to keep church-state relations at a minimum. They did not want “clergy” ruling over the population. Neither was it considered tolerable for politicians to interfere in matters pertaining to the church.

Last Things

“Jesus Christ will return personally and visibly at the end of the age. The righteous and the unrighteous will be resurrected to face final judgment. The righteous will enjoy eternal blessedness in heaven, and the unrighteous will suffer eternal punishment in hell.” VF’s statement concerning last things is generic, enabling readers to find allowance for a variety of viewpoints on the timing of, or order of, prophetic events. Many believers have no problem with this type of generic, broad understanding and application of prophetic events. After all, VF does state that the Lord “will return personally and visibly at the end of the age.” In other words, they do not equate it with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Nor do they say it is some sort of esoteric return. However, is Christ’s return prior to, sometime during or after the tribulation period? Will there even be a tribulation period? What is the purpose of His return: merely to judge everyone? Does planet earth have any reason for existing beyond the time of His return?

We then read that there will be a resurrection and judgment of the righteous and unrighteous. Nothing is specified as to whether or not they are judged separately or simultaneously. According to VF, there will only be a general resurrection and subsequent judgment. As traditional dispensationalists, we believe there will be two phases to the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, not two returns as we are often mischaracterized as teaching. The resurrection of the physical body plays an important role in each of these phases of Christ’s return (Dan. 12:2). First, He will come in the air to remove His spotless bride (1 Thess. 4:13-18; Eph. 5:27), the church, prior to the horrible events of the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:1-11; 2 Thess. 2:1-11), the hour of testing that will come upon all who dwell upon the earth (Rev. 3:10). Believers who have died will be resurrected, and believers who are living at that moment will be “caught up”; both will be instantaneously physically “changed” (1 Cor. 15:51-52), united with our Lord, who “died for us” so that both living and resurrected believers can be with Him (1 Thess. 5:9-11). Our participation in the next prophetic event, known as the rapture of the church, is a benefit of our salvation from sin. He has promised to return and remove us to the Father’s house (Jn. 14:1-3).

The second phase of His second coming takes place at the end of the period of time known as the tribulation, “the time of Jacob’s trouble” (Jer. 30:7). Sometime after the rapture of the church, God will begin a seven-year period of intense judgment, generally upon all mankind, and specifically on His chosen nation, Israel. During this horrible time, incredible results will take place. First, a massive number of human beings from every nation or people group will be saved (Rev. 7:9-17). Second, judgment will fall on both wicked people and their wicked deeds. The world will be purged, cleansed, as it were (Isa. 13:9; 24:19-23; Zech. 13:2). Third, the stubborn, rebellious pride of the Jewish nation will be broken entirely and permanently (Dan. 12:7). Fourth, the times of the Gentiles will be ended (Matt. 24:29-31; Rom. 11:25—this period began when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in 605 B.C., continuing on into our day, and will not end until the Lord’s return in power and great glory). Finally, the tribulation will complete God’s time period of 490 years that He had designated for Israel (Dan. 9:24-27), which began in 445 B.C. (Neh. 2:5) and was temporarily stopped after 483 years, at the crucifixion of Christ. Thus, seven of those years remain and will be fulfilled when the tribulation runs its course.

At the completion of this period of seven years, Christ will return to judge the nations and to establish His kingdom for 1000 years (Matt. 25:31-45; Rev. 19:11-20:9). God will show to all His creatures that He is completely capable of overcoming many attempts to usurp His authority brought on by Satan during his rebellion. God’s kingdom on this earth will demonstrate to all that He does indeed rule over all—not just in some mystical sphere out in the dark recesses of space and time but on this very planet presently dominated by sin and controlled by wicked, sinful people. It will not always be this way. There is a world coming that will be far, far better than the one we presently have, because it will be ruled by the “King of kings, and Lord of Lords” (Rev. 19:16) who will return to take what rightfully belongs only to Him (5:1-14). The dead unbelievers of all ages, except two individuals (Rev. 19:20; 20:10), will be resurrected to stand before a great white throne, to be judged according to their works (20:11-15) and forever cast into the lake of fire.

The millennial kingdom is not something that mortal, finite human creatures are even remotely capable of establishing, even in our own grandiose efforts and sincere intentions. It is divine in nature, purpose, foundation and extent. What we believe about this matters here and now.

Conclusion

It is not our intent to raise concerns over minor, insignificant, petty issues. A number of other areas of concern could be noted, but we have attempted to show that the basis for what VF writes and produces is founded in covenant theology.3 We empathize with parents and teachers who are looking for reliable material to educate young people with accurate curriculum regarding theology and history, especially as it relates to Western culture in general and Christ’s church in particular. Nevertheless, it is important to realize that doctrinal differences exist between VF and traditional dispensationalism (the atonement of Christ, the alleged existence of the covenants of works, grace and redemption, the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of last things). These distinctions merit serious consideration. Anyone utilizing material published by VF and other similar ministries should expect that such literature will promote their theological beliefs, which, in this case, reflect a strong adherence to covenant theology and thus a strong aversion to dispensationalism, both in theology and history. We urge everyone to be Berean-type Christians (Acts 17:11), to examine everything and everyone under the light of Holy Scripture. Do not accept a teaching simply because it sounds good or plausible. Ask questions and purpose in your heart to find out what the Bible says about it.

Endnotes:

1 This writer recognizes that some dispensationalists may believe in limited atonement, in some sense. What we are attempting to show is that limited atonement (that Christ died only, exclusively for the elect and absolutely no one else) is an integral part of a system of theology, covenantal in nature. Our position at the FEA is that Christ died for the sins of all humanity. His death paid in full the penalty for the sins of everyone, though not everyone is saved. A person must exercise faith in Christ (His person and finished work on the cross and His bodily resurrection) to be forgiven and reconciled to God.

2 Standard systematic theologies by Louis Berkhof, Robert Reymond and others from a covenantal perspective attempt to provide some biblical texts to warrant this view. Charles Ryrie, Louis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, Alva J. McClain, Rolland McCune and others have made traditional dispensational responses.

3 A number of other statements found in their statement of faith merit study. The ones covered in this article will suffice for our purposes.

— Gary Freel is the pastor of Grace Bible Church of Fresno, California, and a regular contributor to Foundation magazine.