Although every man at any time is saved by the grace of God through faith, the content of faith differs from one dispensation to the next. That is, the message that is offered and believed for righteousness and salvation varies according to God’s progressive revelation.
As discussed in ‘What are the different gospels in the Bible?’ various people at sundry times were counted righteous as a result of faithful obedience to separate messages.
Where Abraham was counted righteous as a result of his obedience of faith to a promised nation, Moses taught the obedience of faith in the law for righteousness (Genesis 15:6, Deut 6:25). John the Baptist taught water baptism for remission of sins, and Jesus taught the ‘seeking the kingdom’ as a gospel worthy of righteousness (Mark 1:4, Matt 6:33).
Later the disciples witnessed the death and resurrection of the Messiah and testified of the endurance of the saints for attaining salvation (1 Peter 1:7-9). The message taught by Peter, James, and John was that Jesus was the promised Son of God, and whomever believed this truth and followed the commandments would be counted worthy of eternal life (Acts 3:26, 1 John 5:12).
Righteousness with the law
Since the beginning ministry of John the Baptist, the disciples taught the necessary obedience of faith to the covenant laws for righteousness. Although faith was always required for justification, it was the active obedience of faith to God’s instructions that would gain a righteous standing before God.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus taught, “For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20)
James says, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17).
John says, “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7).
Even the New Covenant promised to ‘write the laws in your hearts’ and ‘cause you to do them’ (Heb 8:10, Eze 36:27).
Therefore it was no surprise when if anyone failed to keep the strict standard of righteousness taught by Christ, then they would be condemned! [See ‘What is the New Covenant’]
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” – 1 John 3:9
“For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries.” – Hebrews 10:26-27
Righteousness without the law
However, Paul taught the contrary. Instead of preaching the obedience of faith towards the law for righteousness, he taught righteousness by faith only.
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested …” – Romans 3:21
“But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” – Romans 4:5
In his exposition of salvation, Paul explains that we are reconciled to God while we were his enemies, disobeying the commandments and ‘strangers from the covenants’ (Eph 2:12).
“For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.” – Romans 5:10
Whereas under the message of the disciples righteousness was indicated by their deeds, Paul’s message indicates righteousness as a product of the work of Christ on the cross imputed upon those that believe (Romans 3:22-24, 2 Cor 5:21).
A Different gospel
Based upon the necessary conditions for righteousness, we can see that Paul not only taught a different message but a different gospel than the disciples. Whereas, the disciples taught faith in the Christ as the Son of God and commandment-keeping as their standard for righteousness, Paul revealed a message of trusting the function of the death and resurrection for justification (Romans 3:24-25).
Peter taught the crucifixion as the ultimate example of unjust persecution (Acts 2:23, 1 Peter 2:20-24). However, the blood of Christ was something that was necessary for the glory of the gospel preached by Paul (Col 1:14, Romans 3:24).
“But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world.” – Gal 6:14
He taught the faith in Christ’s righteous atonement that grants justification apart from any works of the law (Romans 4:5). This message and gospel of grace is first taught by the Apostle Paul as it was revealed to him by Christ for he had not learned it from the disciples (Gal 1:11-12).
Misunderstanding this gospel distinction is the cause of so much confusion about salvation. To become assured of our eternal destination a proper understanding of the righteousness without the law is needed.