Dispensationalism is a theological system that recognizes various ages, or dispensations, ordained by God to order the affairs of the world. Classic dispensationalism sees seven dispensations, starting with the age of innocence in the Garden of Eden and ending with the age of the millennial kingdom. The current age, called the age of grace or the church age, is held by most dispensationalists to have begun in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost. At that time, the Holy Spirit came upon the believers and empowered them to fulfill the Great Commission, and the church age began. However, mid-Acts dispensationalism sees that event as still part of the dispensation of Law; the “church” in the first part of Acts was a Jewish congregation under Jewish rules, not the church of the church age. According to mid-Acts dispensationalism, the church began with the ministry of the apostle Paul in either Acts 9 (Paul’s conversion) or Acts 13 (Paul’s first missionary journey).
Classical dispensationalism sees a biblical distinction between Israel and the church; mid-Acts dispensationalism takes it further, separating the Jewish congregation in Acts 1—8 from the Gentile church (the body of Christ) from then on.
According to mid-Acts dispensationalism or the Grace Movement, the apostles Peter, James, John, and the rest were still operating under the Old Covenant in Acts 1—8. They were still dutifully keeping the Law and still meeting as a Jewish body in Jerusalem. Peter and the other apostles preached repentance to Israel, but there was no church until Paul. It was Paul, the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13), to whom the doctrine of the church—and the doctrine of grace—was revealed. It was only after Paul began to minister that the church actually began. Thus, the only parts of the New Testament that are specifically for the church are the Pauline Epistles. The rest of the New Testament is only applicable to the church in a similar way that the Old Testament is applicable to the church. Truth can be learned from it, but it was not written to Christians.
There are some other problems with mid-Acts dispensationalism. In particular, its views on salvation, water baptism, and the church’s origin are based on misunderstandings of some points of Scripture. Here are some of the difficulties inherent in the teaching that the church began with Paul:
To Paul were revealed the details of the church, which had been a “mystery” in the Old Testament (Colossians 1:25–27). Mid-Acts dispensationalism wrongly assumes that Paul’s revelation about the church equals the beginning of the church itself.
Mid-Acts dispensationalism misinterprets Galatians 2:7, “I [Paul] had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised.” The mid-Acts dispensationalist makes a distinction between a “gospel of circumcision,” taught by Peter, and a “gospel of uncircumcision,” taught by Paul. In reality, Paul is referring to different audiences, not different gospels. The Jews whom Peter ministered to were saved by grace through faith, just as the Gentiles to whom Paul ministered.
Mid-Acts dispensationalism or the Grace Movement denies the need for water baptism for believers. They believe that Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19 is not for the church. They exclude water baptism on the basis that the baptism of the Spirit, which occurs at salvation, has replaced water baptism.
Mid-Acts dispensationalism overlooks the fact that Gentiles were part of the early church before Paul was converted. Acts 2:10–11 makes it clear that the crowd listening to Peter preach on the Day of Pentecost included Gentile proselytes to Judaism. And Acts 8 shows how Samaritans and an Ethiopian were baptized into Christ before Paul ever started preaching the doctrine of the church or of grace. Thus there was a joint church body of Jews and Gentiles before Paul began his ministry.
Most importantly, mid-Acts dispensationalism or the Grace Movement claims there are “different gospels,” one taught by Peter and one taught by Paul. But the Old Testament (and the first part of the New Testament) does not teach salvation by works; the Jews in Galilee were not saved a different way from the Gentiles in Achaia.
Mid-Acts dispensationalism is opposed to several elements of orthodoxy. Its downplaying of half of the New Testament, its unwarranted exclusion of early Jewish believers from the body of Christ, its disregard of water baptism, and its allowance for a faith-plus-works gospel make the Grace Movement an unbiblical view.