Dispensationalism is a system of theology that organizes history into different periods, or "dispensations," of how God works. It is a way of looking at God's plan for specific periods in history to roll out the revelation of Himself and His desire for relationship with people.
Of the classic seven dispensations, or ages, the dispensation of conscience (Genesis 3:23 to 8:19) is second after the dispensation of innocence (Genesis 1:27—3:19) in which God interacted with the first humans face to face.
Each dispensation is said to have a six-part pattern. For the dispensation of conscience, the pattern is:
Managers: Cain, Seth, and their families Time Period: Expulsion from the garden of Eden until the Flood, about 1,656 years Human Responsibility: Do good and offer blood sacrifices (Genesis 3:7, 22; 4:4) Failure: Wickedness (Genesis 6:5–6, 11, 12) Judgment: Worldwide Flood (Genesis 6:7, 13; 7:11–14) Grace: Noah and his family are saved (Genesis 6:8-9; 7:1; 8:1)
The end of the first dispensation, that of innocence, came about when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. God then instituted conscience as a way humans could delineate between good and evil, choose good, and have a relationship with God through blood sacrifice (Genesis 4:4). Almost immediately, people chose evil. Cain killed Abel (Abel was the first person ever to die) because God accepted Abel's animal (blood) sacrifice but did not accept Cain's grain sacrifice. Cain had a choice, clearly communicated by God (Genesis 4:6–7), to choose good in obedience. Cain refused, expecting God to fall in line with his own ideas of how to have a relationship with Him.
Mankind did not fare well, violating his conscience and failing to do what was right. Evidently God wanted to demonstrate to mankind that conscience cannot be our only guide. During the dispensation of conscience, only three people were declared righteous—Abel, Enoch, and Noah (Hebrews 11:2–7; Genesis 5:22–24; 6:8–9). Before the Flood, "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6:5).
Because Noah was righteous, God chose him to warn others as he built the ark for 120 years (Genesis 6:14–22; 2 Peter 2:5). None heeded. God righteously judged the sin of people and they suffered the consequences of their choices—but the human race also experienced God's mercy. God spared Noah and his family (Genesis 7:1; 8:1; Hebrews 11:7), showing how He could and would "rescue the godly" (2 Peter 2:4–10). A new dispensation began (that of government).
Today, those who aren't in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ are ruled by their conscience (Romans 2:15). Just as Noah still needed God's rescue, so do we. The apostle Peter harkens back to Noah when he equates Noah's salvation, or rebirth, through the flood waters with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:18–21). We are baptized into the Holy Spirit when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. It is only by Him that we can be saved (Acts 4:12).
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