I started to learn right division back in 91’, and since that time I had been convinced that salvation was by faith and works for the Jew in the past, and again in the future. But, in light of the resurrection and our time and purpose during the kingdom of God, how does the works of the following groups factor in to those things: Gentiles prior to the Law, Jews and Gentiles from the Law to Acts 28, Gentiles in this age of grace?
One verse that is really helpful in this regard (and the entire passage is worth studying in this connection) is Acts 10:34-35. Peter here is standing before the gathered household of the Roman Cornelius. We read, “Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him.”
In this statement of Peter we find an important truth. That is, that the criteria for salvation in every nation are that one fear God and work righteousness. As Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes 12:13 (KJV), “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” Solomon, speaking by inspiration, comes to the same conclusion Peter does: that fearing God and keeping His commandments is man’s whole duty.
Now this is the universal law that applies to all. However, in specific cases when God chooses to reveal Himself in special ways, what exactly “fearing God” means and what “keeping His commandments” or “working righteousness” is can change. The difference between what was required of all, “working righteousness,” and what was required of an Israelite, “keeping His commandments,” was the difference of how much God had revealed to them. The Gentiles had their conscience, telling them that there is a God, Romans 1:20, and what He requires of all men, Romans 2:12-16. The Jews, on the other hand, had the Word of God, and therefore were privy to God’s specific commands to them. They therefore had access to greater privileges from God, but that also meant they had greater responsibility before God. There were more things they had to do to fear God and work righteousness than the Gentiles had to do. Yet they also had the privilege of having access to God’s Word. As such, they could respond to that Word in faith, something the Gentiles who had not the Word could not do.
As far as Gentiles before the law versus after the law until Acts 28, their situation was really no different between the two. Unless a Gentile was blessed with a specific revelation of God greater than that of the common Gentile, like Naaman the Syrian received when he got the word to wash in the Jordan from the prophet Elisha, then that Gentile was expected to do what all Gentiles had been expected to do from the beginning: fear the God they knew to exist, and work the thing they knew to be righteous. The bringing in of the law for Israel really only affected Israel. The situation of the Gentiles did not really change.
The Jews from the law to Acts 28. Not just from the giving of the law, but really from the call of Abraham, God chose a special people with whom to work. This people from then on had greater revelation of God than the other nations, and they also had greater privileges that went along with that, yet they also had greater responsibility before God. Abraham was responsible for the things God revealed to him. He believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness. The Israelites from that point had God’s word, and when they believed it, whatever it was, that was faith.
The giving of the law was meant as a national law for Israel. What God was doing was establishing His government over that land and that people. As such, He was establishing the rules of the land and the code of conduct that they were to follow. The law was never really meant as a means of salvation. Instead, it was a revelation of a righteous way of living for those who were already redeemed by God (at the Passover out of Egypt) and therefore belonged to Him.
When we speak of salvation for an Israelite, we need to realize that we are talking about an entirely different thing than salvation for us. The reality of being born into Israel, at least prior to Acts 28, was that one who was thus born was born into a relationship with God. There was no need to seek to procure such a relationship and to enter into relationship with Him. This relationship was already established, and one received it by birth. The Israelites were born servants of God. This is clearest in the case of the Aaronic priests and Levites, who were born to this position, yet it was really true of every Israelite.
Now that is not to say that what we call “salvation” was guaranteed to every Israelite by reason of birth, by any means. The Israelite was expected to fear God and keep His commandments. If he did not, God could and probably would cut him out of Israel, and he would lose all the privileges he had by being a part of that nation. Yet for the Israelite, it was a matter of starting off with something and then forfeiting it, rather than attaining to it by some specific act somewhere along the way.
An understanding of this is key to understanding a book like Matthew. I have said that if Ephesians is the book of being “in Christ,” Matthew is the book of being “in Israel.” As such, those who have not understood right division and have gone to the Bible to try to determine if there is eternal security, when they have started off with Matthew, have come out of the book assured that one certainly can lose his salvation. The reason is that the “servant” of Matthew received that position by means of birth as an Israelite, yet upon proving to be an unfaithful servant, he can be cast out into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. He finds no security at all in being “in Israel.” Yet the servant here need not have shown any faith at all. He was born a servant, and all that remains is determining whether or not he will be a faithful one. This is not at all like being “in Christ,” which position can only be achieved through one’s personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who He is and what He did that procures for us salvation. One in this position is already predestined for the sonship place in the future. He died with Christ, and he WILL live with Him, no question.
This is not to say that there were not some who had security in Israel in the past. For example, once God promised David the throne would belong to him and his descendants for the olam, and he would never take His mercy from David’s family, as He had from Saul’s, at that point David was assured of a place in God’s kingdom to come. This is described by Isaiah in Isaiah 55:3 and by Paul in Acts 13:34 as “the sure mercies of David.” Paul used it to describe the sure mercies that belonged to Christ, and that also belonged to all who would believe and be placed “in Him” in the Acts period. So the believers in Acts also had, I believe, “sure mercies” once they believed in Christ. They could lose rewards in the time to come through unfaithful service, or even their lives in this world as Ananias and Sapphira did, but they could not lose their salvation once they were in Christ any more than we can. They had sure mercies, like David did.
Gentiles in this dispensation are now equal and joint with Israel (Ephesians 3:6.) As such, there is now really no practical difference between the two. The position of being “in Christ” is offered to all who hear and will believe. For those who have not heard, whether they are Jews or not, they are expected to do what God has always expected of the nations to whom He has made no special offers or revelations. That is, they are to fear the God they know to exist and do the works they know to be righteous. If they do this, they will be accepted by Him (Acts 10:35.) If they die fearing Him and working righteousness, they will be accepted by Him into His kingdom. However, there are multiple downsides to this. One is that there is no means of forgiveness here for those who have failed to work righteousness. If one has committed murder or adultery, for example, there is no means of finding forgiveness for these things except in Christ. Secondly, though one who fears God and works righteousness might enter the kingdom, the exalted position of those who are “in Christ” will not be his, but he will merely be a citizen in the kingdom.
Now once one who fears God and works righteousness hears the truth about Christ, there is no going back for him. Much greater blessing is opened up to him if he believes in Christ. Yet if he fails to believe, unbelief is a great work of unrighteousness, and at that point there is no going back. He either gains greatly, including the forgiveness of any future sins he may commit, or else he loses it all. Yet the advantages for one who has not feared God and worked righteousness is obvious, for he finds in the message of Christ hope and forgiveness. And there are many who are in need of this.