John 1:17 And Its Application to Classic Dispensationalism

Introduction

Among all of the biblical dispensations, perhaps none are more widely debated or misunderstood than the dispensations of the law and grace. Likewise, the distinctions between the two economies are vital to understanding the storyline of the Bible. However, the words themselves have been controversial in relation to soteriology particularly, but are necessary to understand for a thorough understanding of biblical theology. Understanding the Mosaic law and grace are important not only for biblical knowledge, but also for the daily walk in a Christian’s life. Speaking of the law’s relationship to sanctification, John F. Hart writes, “To promote obedience to the Mosaic law – even the Ten Commandments (the old covenant) – is to promote sin and defeat in the Christian…Legalism for sanctification must be replaced by an inflexible emphasis on the New Testament freedom found in living by the Spirit.”[1] First, it will be important to recognize the context of John 1:17, which states, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Secondly, it will be pertinent to analyze what the dispensation of the law constitutes and why it is important. Thirdly, an overview of the dispensation of grace will be considered. Fourthly, practical applications of the verse at hand will be brought forth. Upon conclusion, believers will be able to see both the necessity of the law and the sheer magnitude of God’s amazing grace. Altogether, the teachings of John 1:17 provide a powerful application to Dispensational theology.

Context of John

When it comes to authorship of the fourth book in the New Testament, the Bible Knowledge Commentary states, “[There is] a good case for the author of the Fourth Gospel having been John, one of the sons of a fisherman named Zebedee.”[2] Scholars, both liberal and conservative, have proposed a wide range for the possible date of John, though between A.D. 85 and 95 is most likely.[3] When it comes to the “purpose” or “purposes” of John’s Gospel, many commentators have proposed different possibilities, though it was almost undoubtedly at the very least an evangelistic appeal and perhaps even an apologetic of early Christianity.[4] While other possibilities could be added to the list of details pertaining to surrounding context of the entire book of John, what is for certain is that Jesus Christ is the main character, and what pertains to His personhood and work is vital to the audience both in the first century as well as the twenty-first.

While the surrounding context is indeed helpful for this research, it is also necessary to observe the immediate context of John chapter one. The chapter begins with the first five verses that speak of the Logos (“the Word”) who forever existed in eternity past and through Him all things were created. Next, the author informs his audience that John the Baptist was instrumental in paving the way to having His listeners behold the Word (verses 6-8). In verses nine through fifteen is a summary of the Incarnation of the Word and His reception by those who believe in Him. Near the end of this section (verse 14), the author states, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (italics added). It is interesting to notice that in the main passage up for analysis verse 17), the phrase “grace and truth” is repeated. In fact, just before verse seventeen, John states, “For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace [χάριν ἀντὶ χάριτος].” (verse 16, italics added). Therefore, two things can be concluded regarding the immediate context of John chapter one. First, John seems to have an awareness of chronology. Beginning with eternity past, he proceeds to referring to the ministry of John the Baptist, and finally Christ Himself. Secondly, it is clear from this passage that when Christ came as the Incarnate Son of God, He brought with Himself an overflowing amount of grace. Thus, the purpose of verse seventeen fits with the overall argument that the coming of the Logos is indeed good news, for by His coming, humanity becomes a recipient of a certain stewardship distinct from the dispensation of Moses’ lifetime. The implications of the various differences between the dispensation of the law and grace, however, call for further study in order to discover an even fuller picture of John 1:17.

Dispensation of the Law

            Charles Ryrie identifies the beginning of the dispensation of the law from the life of Moses in Exodus 19:1 until its conclusion at the death of Christ, though it could be carried over until about Acts 1:26.[5] It was during this period that the nation of Israel received the “great code” often called the “Mosaic Law.”[6] The Apostle Paul asks an intriguing question with a satisfying answer in relation to the Mosaic Law in Romans 7:7, “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Again he writes, “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Therefore, the Mosiac Law itself was a very good standard of righteousness, but unfortunately no one could keep all of its precepts. Paul states the crux of the matter in Galatians 3:24: “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” So then, the law itself (613 commands) was indeed good and operated effectively in the dispensation of the law; however, now that Christ has stepped down into the human history, Christians are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). There is a new economy, a new rule of life for believers. That is, Christians operate under the dispensation of grace, a title reminiscent of the indication of change in John 1:17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (italics added).

Dispensation of Grace

            The present dispensation, referred to as the dispensation of grace or the church, is usually marked with the beginning of the church in Acts 2, continuing on until the inauguration of the Millennial Kingdom.[7] Ryrie summarizes the changes between the dispensations of law and grace quite well: “To be sure, the dispensationalist does not say that there was no grace ever displayed before the coming of Christ (any more than he says there is no law after His coming), but the Scriptures do say that His coming displayed the grace of God in such brightness that all previous displays could be considered as nothing.”[8] The word “grace” is translated from the Greek word, χάρις, meaning, “To show kindness to someone, with the implication of graciousness on the part of the one showing such kindness.”[9] Certainly, then, the coming of Christ is an aspect of grace (John 3:16), but in His coming there was a provision of a special kind of grace through the Gospel – salvation grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Does this mean Dispensationalists teach that salvation was not always by grace through faith since the present dispensation is entitled the “dispensation of grace”? Absolutely not, for Lewis Sperry Chafer confirms, “There is, therefore, but one way to be saved and that is by the power of God made possible through the sacrifice of Christ.”[10] Likewise, Ryrie explains, “The giving of the law did not abrogate grace.”[11] Therefore, “John 1:17 does not mean that there was no grace before the coming of Christ, but it does mean that, in comparison with the grace of Christ, all previous revelations of grace were as nothing.”[12] Christ indeed has ushered in “grace upon grace,” and thus, the name “dispensation of grace” has been appropriately given (John 1:16).

Practical Implications of John 1:17

It seems to be that when John wrote his Gospel letter, his goal was not just for the audience to have mere knowledge about the Son of the God, but that such understanding would have a meaningful practical response for believers. Particularly in reference to John 1:17 can such a claim be made. Therefore, it is essential to carefully consider the implications pertaining to law and grace from this verse for even twenty first century Christians. First of all, then, it must be asked, “How does the law apply to a Christian’s sanctification?” Some Christians would say that believers are still under part of the Mosaic Law in some way, but the extent and specificity of that binding is usually a little unclear. Many Dispensationalists, however, approach this situation with relative ease. John F. Hart states, “If being ‘under law’ means obligation to the entire Mosaic code (1 Cor. 9:20; Gal 3:23; 4:4-5, 21), then not being ‘under law’ (Rom. 6:14; Gal. 5:18) means release from obligations to the entire Mosaic code.”[13] Thus, the law fulfilled its purpose entirely by operating as a “guardian”(ESV)/“schoolmaster”(KJV)/“tutor”(NASB) to direct people to believing in Christ for justification. But does the Mosaic Law now operate as a means for sanctification? Scofield would say “no.” He once wrote, “Law neither justifies a sinner nor sanctifies a believer.”[14] Scofield’s words appear to be in perfect harmony with 2 Corinthians 3:6, which says, “[God] made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.” So then, the law is not able to produce sanctification in a Christian’s life; that is the role of the Holy Spirit. Because “living by the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) will not produce anything less than Christlikeness in the believer.”[15]

Secondly, “How does grace apply to a Christian’s sanctification?” While the law cannot produce sanctification, there is much room for grace. In fact, Hart says, “Biblically speaking, then, a consistent theology of grace must not only be concerned about the role of grace as opposed to obedience to the law for justification. It must also be concerned about the role of grace over against obedience to the law for sanctification.”[16] Therefore, since “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4), the message of John 1:17 makes clear sense: “Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” This means that both justification and sanctification are available because of the grace of God, and through Him alone. Every ounce of a Christian’s sanctification is a result, not of obedience to the Mosaic Law, but of the Holy Spirit’s gracious power provided to the believer. That, indeed, is very good news.

Conclusion

One of the most helpful aspects of Dispensationalism is its ability to identify legitimate changes that have occurred in biblical history. Such a verse as John 1:17 makes it impossible to ignore the fact that certain features of a particular time in history are distinguishable from other eras. While one option would be to ignore these distinctions, a much better solution is to analyze the features (“law” and “grace”) and conclude with a balanced resolution. Based on the testimony of Scripture, the traditional explanations of Dispensationalists offer a satisfying exegesis to what John 1:17 teaches. Both the realities of the Mosaic Law and grace are inherently good, but each also serves a particular purpose. It is easy to see, then, why it is vital to understand the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit and the treasures of the God’s grace in the present dispensation. For without grace, the Christian walk would be absent of all life whatsoever, “For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).


[1] John F. Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, gen. ed., Christopher Cone (Ft. Worth, TX: Tyndale Seminary Press, 2008), 417.

[2] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary. The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 2:266.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Ibid. and Robert James Utley, The Beloved Disciple’s Memoirs and Letters: The Gospel of John, I, II, and III John. Study Guide Commentary Series. (Marshall, Texas: Bible Lessons International, 1999), 4.

[5] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2007), 63.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 64. And just to be clear, a majority of Dispensationalists teach that while the dispensation of grace started with the birth of the church, the rapture will take place well before the end of the dispensation in order to fulfill the prophecies of the 7-year Tribulation period.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York, NY: United Bible Societies, 1996), 748.

[10] Lewis Sperry Chafer, “Inventing Heretics Through Misunderstanding,” Bibliotecha Sacra 102 (January 1945): 1.

[11] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism, 128.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] John F. Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, 399-400.

[14] C.I. Scofield, Scofield Reference Bible Notes (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1945), 1245.

[15] See Hart, Dispensationalism: Tomorrow & Beyond, 417.

[16] Ibid.

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