Rev. Laning is pastor of Hope Protestant Reformed Church in Walker, Michigan. Previous article in this series: June 2009, p. 400.
The previous article dealt with the dispensational claim that the kingdom of Christ was not mentioned by the Old Testament prophets. Over against this error it was pointed out that Scripture says that not only some, but all these prophets, spoke of the days in which we now live. They spoke of a Messiah that would come to a heavenly throne through the deep way of the cross, and who would then rule the nations from God’s right hand.
The Jews in Jesus’ day were slow to believe these prophets, and wrongly concluded that they spoke of a future earthly kingdom. But after Pentecost the disciples clearly grasped the heavenly nature of Christ’s kingdom, and went forth boldly to proclaim that the promises found in the Old Testament had been fulfilled, and that the Messiah was already reigning over all the nations, and gathering His people out of these nations into His body, the church.
We turn now to consider yet another peculiar teaching of the dispensationalists. They commonly maintain that Jesus at the beginning of His public ministry offered to the Jews an earthly kingdom, only to withdraw that offer once it was rejected. Then they go on to say that Jesus withdrew this offer only temporarily, and that He will offer this earthly kingdom to the Jews once again when He returns.
This idea of a well-meant offer of the kingdom is similar in some respects to the error known as the well-meant offer of the gospel. Both refer to God’s promise as a gracious “offer,” and both involve God graciously offering to people something He has already determined that they will not receive.¹ This similarity is interesting and significant, and warrants our close attention as we proceed.
The dispensational “offer” of an earthly kingdom
The dispensational position on Christ “offering” an earthly kingdom to the Jews can be summarized briefly. Their argument goes like this:
God’s promise to David concerning the kingdom of His Son was an unconditional promise of an earthly kingdom—a kingdom of earthly power and riches that would be enjoyed by the Jews in this life. When the promised Son of David came and began to preach, He offered this earthly kingdom to the Jews. He proclaimed to them that the time for this kingdom was “at hand,” and that the Jews were to repent and receive the kingdom of earthly dominion that God had promised to their father David.
The Jews, however, rejected this well-meant offer. And when this became clearly evident, Christ withdrew His offer and began speaking about a different subject, namely, about what was going to happen during the time period between His first coming and His second coming.
But the offer that Christ had made could not be withdrawn forever. Because the promise to David was unconditional, the offer would have to be made again at some future time. So the fulfillment of the promise was postponed until the time of the second coming of Christ. When Christ returns, the Jews will be different than they were when He came the first time. Having been humbled into submission during the Great Tribulation, they will finally accept Christ as their King, and the promised earthly kingdom will be realized.
This, in short, is the dispensational position. It is a view that manifests a wrong view not only of Christ’s kingdom, but also of the nature of God’s gracious call.
The objection that this would be a kingdom without the cross
As was pointed out last time, the unconditional promise to David concerning the reign of His Son was fulfilled in Christ’s resurrection and ascension. The prophets spoke of a suffering Messiah that would reign from heaven after His resurrection. This being the case, how could Christ have offered an earthly kingdom to the Jews before He had suffered and died to pay for the sins of His people? Atonement was necessary for the kingdom to come. How could the Messiah offer the Jews a kingdom on earth when as yet the justice of God had not been satisfied?
A number of writers have made this objection against dispensationalism, arguing that this would mean that Christ “offered” a kingdom that did not require the cross. Oswald T. Allis, a teacher at Princeton Theological Seminary in the early 1900s, is one of those who made this objection. In his popular book,Prophecy and the Church, he wrote:
Can it then be affirmed that the establishment of the kingdom was quite independent of the sacrifice of the Cross? Can it be asserted that the order might have been, first the kingdom, then the Cross, when the risen Christ so clearly declares that the burden of prophecy gives the opposite order: “Behooved it not the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into his glory?”
Finally, if the sequence could have been, first the kingdom, then the Cross, and if the kingdom is to be “without end,” where can the Cross come in? In other words, if the Jews had accepted the kingdom would there have been any place, any necessity for the Cross?²
Dispensationalists are, of course, aware of this argument. And some of them have given a response:
The difficulty is removed at once when it is remembered that the postponement was not an afterthought or unexpected necessity, but was itself a part of the original plan of God—that is, to the end that an age might be introduced which had been kept secret in the counsels of God, that Messiah might be crucified and raised from the dead to be the Redeemer of both Israel and the Church….³
Perhaps not all dispensationalists would be willing to admit, as Chafer did here, that the cross was part of God’s original plan. But leaving that aside, let us consider what Chafer said here about Christ offering the Jews an earthly kingdom. Chafer says that Christ made this offer even though He knew that God had determined that the cross was necessary to redeem Israel. But does God graciously offer to His people that which He has determined not to give them?
Dispensationalism and the well-meant offer
It is interesting to see the similarity here between dispensationalism and the teaching of the well-meant offer. Those who hold to both the well-meant offer and unconditional election teach that God graciously offers salvation to many individuals whom He has determined not to save.4
Dispensationalists say something very similar. Before going to the cross, Christ is said to have sincerely offered to the Jews an earthly kingdom. Yet some dispensationalists would admit that it was God’s plan that Christ was going to have to go to the cross to redeem His people.
This comparison between dispensationalism and the well-meant offer is pointed out by the dispensationalists themselves. Charles C. Ryrie, former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, responding to the argument of Allis, had this to say:
It is particularly astounding that a Calvinist like Allis should stumble at this matter when he would not even suggest questioning the sincerity of God in offering salvation to non-elect people. One may grant that in the final analysis such matters are inexplicable, but one does not need to charge God with insincerity.5
Indeed it would be hard for one who claims to be Reformed but who holds to the well-meant offer to refute the dispensationalists on this point. Leaving aside what Allis may or may not have thought on the well-meant offer, it is important to stress that a person who is truly Reformed does not hold to such an offer.
An essential teaching of the Reformed faith is the doctrine of irresistible grace. When God gives grace, that grace always has the effect that God desires. Yet almost everyone who speaks of God “offering” grace or “offering” a kingdom is teaching the very opposite of this. They are saying that God offers something to certain individuals with the sincere desire that they receive what is offered, but that the reception of what is offered depends on their will. In other words, they are teaching resistible grace, which is the exact opposite of one of the fundamental teachings of the Reformed faith.
An attempt to turn the tables
After attempting to fend off objections to the idea that Christ offered the Jews an earthly kingdom, Ryrie made an attempt to turn the tables against the amillennialists:
Let us suppose for sake of discussion that the dispensational interpretation of Jesus’ offer of the Davidic kingdom in the Gospels is not correct. If He was not preaching about the millennial kingdom when He said, “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”
then He must have been talking about a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men (for there are no other choices)…. If the Jews living during the earthly ministry of Jesus had received His teaching and had repented and been born again, does this mean there was in those days a way of salvation which was different from salvation through the death of Christ?… If the Jews had received this spiritual kingdom and had been saved, then does this not mean that the cross might have been unnecessary? If the Jews had immediately accepted the spiritual kingdom Jesus offered, then what would have happened to the cross?6
Ryrie then goes on to say that an amillennialist would undoubtedly reply to these questions by saying that they are merely theoretical questions that do not demand an answer. And then Ryrie agrees with the answer that he put into the mouth of the amillennialist. Referring to the questions listed in the quote above, he say:
These are foolish questions.
Perhaps the same is true of the similar questions asked of dispensationalists.
“Foolish,” he says. And in a sense, I suppose, that is true. But I do believe there would be a real value in pointing out where specifically Ryrie goes wrong with his line of questioning. But this, Lord willing, will have to wait until next time.
1 There are different views of the well-meant offer. In this article I will be referring to this error as it is held by those who also claim to hold to unconditional election. Those who say they hold to both these teachings are guilty of maintaining that God graciously offers salvation to many people whom He has determined will never receive it.
2 Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1945), 75.
3 Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, vol. 5 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1993), 347.
4 It is true that God “sets forth” Christ and calls to repentance many individuals whom He has determined not to save. This is what is meant when Scripture says that many are called, but few are chosen (Matt. 20:16). But the external call to the reprobate does not come with grace. The error of the well-meant offer is that it teaches that God’s gracious call comes to many individuals who will never be saved.
5 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 165. I am interpreting Ryrie’s use of the word “offering” to refer to a gracious offer, seeing as that is virtually always what dispensationalists mean by the term.
6 Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 165. I am interpreting Ryrie’s use of the word “offering” to refer to a gracious offer, seeing as that is virtually always what dispensationalists mean by the term.