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.
These different gospels can be understood by a careful study of Scripture making sure to rightly divide according to what had been revealed (2 Tim 2:15).
Noah and righteousness
In Genesis, Noah was counted righteous because of his obedience to God and was saved through the building of the ark in a world without rain. His faith and obedience was not based upon the knowledge of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but in the living God and his promise of a flood.
“By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.” – Hebrews 11:7
While Peter explains that Noah’s salvation was a figure of the salvation found in the resurrection of Christ, there is no mention of Noah’s understanding of this truth. Peter reveals that no prophet understood such a salvation through Christ until after his death:
“Of which salvation the prophets have enquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow.” – 1 Peter 1:11-12
Abraham and righteousness
It cannot be ignored that Abraham was counted righteous because of his faith in God’s word for a mighty nation, not the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Genesis 15:6). Although we now know that Abraham could be justified based upon the then-future propitiatory work of Christ, the message that counted him faithful was the promise of a mighty nation.
As Paul explains, Abraham was ‘strong in faith’ (Romans 4:20).
“And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. “ – Romans 4:21
The specific promise that God made to Abraham was not that a messiah would die for his sins, but that his wife would produce a son although she was barren and beyond her age.
“Who against hope believed in hope, that he might become the father of many nations, according to that which was spoken, So shall thy seed be.” – Romans 4:18
Moses and righteousness
While Moses was able to have personal communion and conversation with God, he wrote about a righteousness gained from the obedience of faith in the law.
“And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us.” – Deuteronomy 6:25
Paul expounds upon the understanding of Moses when he quotes Leviticus 18:5:
“For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them.” – Romans 10:5
This righteousness and the faith that Moses and his followers had of God’s law was not faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Romans 10:2-9).
John the Baptist and righteousness
After a four century silence in God’s plan with Israel, John the Baptist appears on the scene preaching the ‘baptism of repentance for the remission of sins’ (Mark 1:4).
The message he taught was the soon coming of the promised kingdom to Israel and the Messiah. Those who believed his message accepted his baptism, and those who were unfaithful to God’s promises rejected his testimony of faith.
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – Matt 3:7
The result of accepting John’s baptism was a remission of sins and righteousness by the obedience of faith. Jesus demonstrated this by taking part in the baptism, although John declared that he didn’t need it:
“But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. “ – Matt 3:14-15
Jesus and righteousness
During his earthly ministry Jesus also taught the ‘gospel of the kingdom’ as John did:
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” – Mark 1:14-15
However, Jesus also taught the righteousness of the new covenant law.
“Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” – Matthew 5:17
“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
Although this standard of righteousness seemed to be stringent, there were abundant rewards for those who ‘endured to the end’ (Matt 10:22).
“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” – Matthew 6:33
It should be noted that even though Jesus taught the law, coming kingdom, and even his identity as the son of God, belief in his atoning death and resurrection was not required for righteousness or salvation during his earthly ministry.
In fact, when he did try to explain that he had to die to his disciples, they were ignorant of the matter:
“And they understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken. “ – Luke 18:34
The Disciples and the New Covenant righteousness
After the institution of the New Covenant and empowerment by the Holy Ghost, the disciples Peter and John wrote about a faith in Jesus as the Messiah and his resurrection.
Peter explains that remaining faithful to God and his Son through the immediate trials of tribulation would secure salvation and righteousness for believers in the end:
“That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: … Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.” – 1 Peter 1:7,9
The content of the faith that they had to believe was preached by Peter at his Pentecostal debut:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” – Acts 2:36
John also writes that their faith rested in the message that Jesus was indeed the son of God, the promised Messiah.
“But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name. “ – John 20:31
“Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” – 1 John 5:1
“He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life. “ – 1 John 5:12
“If ye know that he is righteous, ye know that every one that doeth righteousness is born of him.” – 1 John 2:29
This message of faith in the name of Jesus as Christ and Messiah was essential to entering the kingdom and achieving the righteousness as promised by God.
Listed here is a simple summary of different gospels found in the Bible, yet is not exhaustive. It does not include the glorious gospel of grace and imputed righteousness through Jesus Christ revealed to Paul. However, it should be evident that there were separate messages offered for righteousness and salvation as God’s word was progressively revealed.
It is only when we come to God’s word as skilled workman ‘rightly dividing the word of truth’ that we can understand the actions of the just down through history as they seek the righteousness of God by faith.