Cornelius R. Stam. Things That Differ: The Fundamentals of Dispensationalism. Germantown, WI: Berean Bible Society, 1985. See here to buy the book.
A lady lent me this book over ten years ago, when I visited a dispensationalist Bible study. I tried reading it at the time, but I could not get into it. Last week, I was trying to remember the title of the book, and I finally stumbled onto it after visiting some grace sites: Things That Differ. The book is a very lucid presentation of Cornelius Stam’s version of dispensationalism.
A. Rather than reinventing the wheel and defining dispensationalism, I will start this post with a rough summary of what Stam argues. Stam appeals to passages from the synoptic Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles.
Stam presents the following scenario:
Jesus was offering Israel a kingdom, in accordance with what the Old Testament prophets predicted. This kingdom would entail the restoration of the Davidic dynasty, with Jesus ruling as the Davidic king. It would also entail paradise, and the nations being drawn to Israel’s God through Israel’s example and exaltation. Jesus taught Israel and ministered to her to prepare her to take up this role.
But the Jewish authorities rejected the Kingdom Jesus offered by putting Jesus to death. After Jesus rose from the dead, God filled the Jewish apostles with the Holy Spirit and offered Israel the Kingdom once more. Peter at Pentecost proclaimed that those were the last days, and he encouraged the Jews listening to him to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Stam notes that Peter said nothing about Christ’s death being an atonement for sin, for he does not think that Peter had that light yet. While there were many Jews who were being baptized, the Jewish authorities blasphemed the Holy Spirit by stoning Stephen. Jews and Gentiles united against Christ.
According to Stam, God could have proceeded with his end-time agenda right then and there. God could have punished the nations and purified Israel, reconstituting Israel on a Jewish remnant that believed in Jesus. Jesus said that God would do this: that his Jewish apostles would replace the Jewish authorities as the leaders of Israel and would rule the twelve tribes (Matthew 19:28; 21:43). Instead of going forward with that plan, however, God decided to postpone it. God responded to the nations’ rebellion against him by inaugurating a dispensation of grace. The Kingdom would be delayed.
The apostle Paul was the administrator of this dispensation of grace. For Stam, Paul was an appropriate exemplar of this administration for two reasons. For one, God showed Paul grace by converting him from being a persecutor of the church to becoming an apostle. Second, Paul was a Jew but also a Roman citizen. This coincided with how the dispensation of grace would bring Jew and Gentile together into one body, the church. During this dispensation, God would depart from God’s original agenda of blessing the nations through Israel’s acceptance of the Messiah and God’s glorification of Israel; rather, as Paul said in Romans 11, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah would result in the Gospel going to the Gentiles and the Gentiles coming to God through Christ.
This administration of grace was not predicted in the Old Testament, according to Stam. It was new. Paul calls his Gospel a mystery that was kept secret since the world began (Romans 16:25). Paul’s Gospel includes Christ dying for people’s sins and the truth that the Gentiles can become part of Abraham’s seed through faith (Romans). It is a message in which God, though Paul, exhorts people to become reconciled to God (II Corinthians 5:18-20). Paul says that God’s plan to include the Gentiles and Jews into the church as fellow-heirs was a mystery, unknown until that time (Ephesians 3:3-9). This mystery also includes Christ being in believers as the hope of glory (Colossians 1:26-27).
According to Stam, this dispensation of grace will end when the church is raptured to heaven. At that time, the end-times will resume, and the earth will go through the Great Tribulation. God will purify and restore Israel, and Israel will be a blessing to the nations.
B. Stam’s model is appealing. It makes sense of different parts of Scripture, while preserving a literal interpretation of themes in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., remnant, restoration of Israel, etc.). Yet, Stam has to deal with the Bible being messier than that. Here are some issues:
—-Was Paul preaching something that the Old Testament prophets, or the Old Testament, had not predicted? Paul said that his message was in accordance with what the prophets had predicted (Acts 26:22; Romans 1:2). Paul said that the justification of the Gentiles by faith was foreseen in the Scriptures and related to God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations through Abraham’s seed; Paul even says that the Gospel was preached to Abraham (Galatians 3, see v 8). Acts 15 and Romans 15 seem to indicate that the inclusion of Gentiles in the church fulfills Old Testament prophecy. In reciting the church’s creed (arguably), Paul said that Christ dying for our sins, a key part of Paul’s Gospel, was according to the Scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3). And did not Isaiah 53 predict a figure who would die for people’s sins? How does this mesh with Stam’s argument that key elements of Paul’s Gospel were unknown prior to the first century?
Stam tries to get around these challenges in a variety of ways. He says that Isaiah 53 was about Christ dying for the sins of Israel, not the entire world. Stam seems to argue that God went forward with some of his goals that he communicated through the prophets concerning the Gentiles, but that God proceeded notwithstanding Israel’s rejection of the Kingdom. In short, God was fulfilling some of the goals that he articulated in the prophecies, but not the prophecies themselves. Stam says that Christ is still the hope of Israel (which Paul associates with his message in Acts 28:20) because Christ’s resurrection is the basis of Israel’s hope. Under this logic, even though God is not working through physical Israel in this dispensation of grace under Paul, Christ needs to be alive for Israel’s restoration to take place in the future, and Paul was proclaiming that Christ was alive because Christ was risen. Stam notes that Galatians 3:8 says that Scripture foresaw, not foretold, that the Gentiles would be justified through faith (and what Stam is implying by that, I have no idea).
Here is a thought: maybe Paul’s Gospel was predicted in the Scriptures, while also being a mystery that was unknown before the first century. For Paul, the prophets could have predicted Paul’s Gospel, but the exact nature of the prophecies’ fulfillment was unknown until the first century.
—-For Stam, there was a time of transition into the dispensation of grace. The dispensation of grace emerged gradually, in a sense. Prior to Paul even becoming an apostle, God sent Peter to the Gentiles (Acts 10); for Stam, God here was anticipating the rejection of Israel as a nation and the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church, even before the dispensation of grace. And, after Paul was converted, Paul preached to Israel, often going to synagogues in cities before preaching to the Gentiles (i.e., Acts 17).
Stam does not believe that water baptism is a part of this dispensation of grace, for people are baptized in the Spirit (I Corinthians 12:13), and that is the only baptism (Ephesians 4:5 says there is one baptism). For Stam, Christians are spiritually baptized in this dispensation of grace. As far as Stam is concerned, water baptism was a physical ritual that God associated with cleansing in the past, but it is not required in this current dispensation. And yet, Paul was baptized in water after his conversion (Acts 22:16), and Paul baptized a few people in water (I Corinthians 1). For Stam, this was a time of transition. Paul was also appealing to the Jews, who valued physical rites such as water baptism. (Note: Stam believes that water baptism is unnecessary in this dispensation, but, unlike some dispensationalists, he still believes in the observance of the rite of the Lord’s supper in the here and now.) For Stam, this was also the case with miracles: the early church and Paul did miracles because Jews valued signs (I Corinthians 1:22), and the miracles were intended to persuade them that Jesus was the Messiah. (My question: Were not miracles also done to persuade the Gentiles? See Acts 14.) For Stam, miracles are not a part of the dispensation of grace.
In short, for Stam, the dispensation of grace did not fall from heaven all at once. There was a time of transition. Stam does believe, however, that Acts 28 officially marks when God stopped working with the nation of Israel. Stam may even think that Paul’s prison epistles mark the full revelation of the dispensation of grace. Stam still believes, though, that the dispensation of grace was around before then, albeit in a transitional stage, and he argues against dispensationalists who believe otherwise.
—-Dispensationalists distinguish between the church and Israel. Stam does so as well, overall. At the same time, Stam still has to deal with the claim in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 that Gentile believers in Christ are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise. Does that not treat Christians as Israel? In addition, the new covenant was promised to the house of Judah and the house of Israel (Jeremiah 31), but Paul in I Corinthians 11:25 seems to say that the new covenant is for believers in Christ.
Ironically, Stam seems to get around this by using a similar argument to that used by Vern Poythress in his critique of dispensationalism, Understanding Dispensationalists. Poythress argued that Christ was the true Israelite, and Christ brings God’s promises to Israel to the Gentile Christians who believe in him. Christ receives God’s promises to Israel as the true Israelite, then passes them on to Gentile Christians. Stam seems to me to argue similarly: through their association with Christ, the promised seed of Abraham, Gentile Christians can enjoy some of the blessings that God gave to Israel, including the new covenant blessings of God writing God’s laws on people’s minds and hearts.
C. Stam had interesting discussions about such passages as John 20:23 (“Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained”, KJV) and the relationship of Gentiles to the Mosaic law.
—-Let’s start with John 20:23. That is a troubling verse because it seems to endow human beings with the authority to forgive and retain sins, something that I think humans are too fallible to possess! Stam does not seem to think that this verse applies to today, however. Rather, he applies it to the time between Pentecost and the dispensation of grace. We see this time in Acts 4-5: the Jewish believers were filled with the Spirit and shared their possessions with each other. During this time, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, was able to see into people’s hearts. He knew that Ananias and Sapphira were lying to the Holy Spirit, and he judged them accordingly! Peter had the authority to forgive and remit sins, but he also was filled with the Holy Spirit and would thus do so fairly and in accordance with God’s will. That was true then, but the same situation may not exist today.
Incidentally, there are other dispensationalists who appear to apply passages in the Gospel of John to the time between Pentecost and the dispensation of grace. John 14:13 states: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (KJV). This is a troubling passage: God will do anything we ask in Jesus’ name? Anything? But I was listening to dispensationalist Richard Jordan, and he said that promise does not apply today. Does he believe that it relates to the believers in Jesus soon after Pentecost? They did miracles to show people Jesus was the Messiah, so, in a sense, God may have been granting whatever they asked in order to glorify the Son.
—-Paul’s Gospel seems to say that people violated God’s law, and so God sent Jesus to atone for those violations. But can this apply to the Gentiles, who did not receive God’s law to Israel? Stam responds to this question by arguing that, in a sense, Israel was a representative of all the world. Israel showed through her sins that she could not obey God’s commands and thus needed a savior. That meant that the Gentiles would not be able to do so, either. Thus, the Gentiles, too are beneficiaries of Christ’s atonement for transgressions.