A Dispensational View of God’s Righteousness

     RighteousnessGod is forever righteous and the expectation of righteous behavior from His people is a timeless truth. God’s righteousness is manifest in the laws He gives, and He always expects righteousness from His people. In one sense, God’s people are declared righteous because of the righteousness He imputes to them as a free gift (Rom. 5:19; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). Once saved, God expects His people to live righteous lives in conformity to His character and commands (Rom. 12:1-2; Tit. 2:11-14). Human righteousness is measured by one’s conformity to God’s character and commands, and though God’s character never changes, His commands for His people have changed over the millennia. God set forth commands for Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the Church. Because God is the Author of each set of laws, one can see similarities and differences, continuity and discontinuity.

Adam lived under laws, the sum of which may be called the code of Adam or the code of Eden. Noah was expected to obey the laws of God, so there was a Noahic code. We know that God revealed many commands and laws to Abraham (Gen. 26:5). They may be called the Abrahamic code. The Mosaic code contained all the laws of the Law. And today we live under the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2) or the law of the Spirit of life in Christ (Rom. 8:2). This code contains the hundreds of specific commandments recorded in the New Testament.[1]

God’s Righteousness before the Fall of Adam

     In the Garden of Eden, righteousness meant conforming to the laws God provided to Adam and Eve (Gen. 1:28; 2:15-17).  The commandments in the Garden of Eden were basic and few according to the Biblical revelation.  The commandments were: to procreate and fill the earth (Gen. 1:28a), to subdue and rule over it (Gen. 1:28b), to cultivate and keep the garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15), to enjoy the fruit of all trees (Gen. 2:16), but not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon penalty of death (Gen. 2:17).  Adam and Eve rebelled against God and disobeyed His command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1-8), and this resulted in judgement upon the serpent who deceived (Gen. 3:14-15), upon Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:17-19), upon creation (3:17-18; cf. Rom. 8:20-22), and all humanity (Rom. 5:12; 1 Cor. 15:21-22).[2]  The command to procreate is still in effect (repeated to Noah in Gen. 9:7); however, the commands to have dominion over the earth, cultivate and keep the Garden of Eden, as well as the negative command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are no longer required.

God’s Righteousness after the Fall of Adam and Before Abraham

     From Genesis chapters four through eleven, God revealed Himself and His expectations personally to others, and He held them accountable for their behavior, either to bless or curse.  In Genesis chapter four we read that Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord, “And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; 5 but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard” (Gen. 4:4b-5a).  The Biblical text is silent concerning how Cain and Abel knew to bring offerings to the Lord; however, it is revealed that God approved of Abel’s offering while rejecting Cain’s.  This language of acceptance and rejection reveals a standard of expectation God had for these two men, which, it is assumed, He revealed to them prior to their offering and which also served as the basis for his welcoming the one while refusing the other.  Cain apparently knew the Lord’s reaction, for he “became very angry and his countenance fell” (Gen. 4:5b).  Cain later became jealous and hostile toward Abel and “Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him” (Gen. 4:8).  This resulted in the Lord’s judgment on Cain (Gen. 4:9-16), which is an indication that God’s righteous expectations were known and enforced during this time. 

     Genesis chapter five is another indication of God’s righteousness on display as the record of death upon mankind is repeated over and over; first, with Adam (Gen. 5:5), and then with all his descendants (Gen. 5:8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 27, 31).  However, God’s judgment is not absolute, as we see God’s grace in the midst of His judgments, as Enoch was spared from the experience of death and this because “Enoch walked with God” (Gen. 3:22, 24).  This display of grace in the midst of judgment will be repeated throughout Scripture, culminating in the cross of Christ. 

     God’s righteousness is observed in Genesis chapter six, where the Lord disapproved of the wickedness of mankind and pronounced judgment.  Moses wrote:

Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. 7 The LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” (Gen. 6:5-7)

     God’s righteous expectations must have been known to those who lived on the earth at this time in history.  What follows in Genesis chapters six though nine is the account of the universal flood upon the world, which destroyed all mankind except for Noah and his family.  Of Noah it is revealed that he “found favor in the eyes of God” (Gen. 6:8).  Here, again, is grace in the midst of judgment.  Now, for the first time in the Bible, we see the word righteous (צַדִּיק tsaddiq) applied to Noah, of whom it is written, “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9).  “By this word we learn that Noah was conforming to the requirements of the relationship he had with God.”[3]  The phrase, “Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9) means he walked in step with the Lord who was directing his life, and this was Noah’s righteousness.  God revealed to Noah that He was going to destroy all mankind (Gen. 6:11-13) and He commanded Noah to build an ark that would save only him, his family, and those animals that were brought onto the ark (Gen. 6:14-22); and so God judged mankind as His righteousness demanded.  God’s righteous commands upon Noah were particular to him and not required of any other person.  Noah was righteous because He welcomed God’s commands and obeyed them. 

     After the flood, Moses provided the genealogical record of Noah’s descendants (Gen. 10:1-32), which descendants set their wills against God and built the Tower of Babel in order to make a name for themselves (Gen. 11:1-4).  God’s righteousness was on display when He came down to see their work and to pronounce judgment upon them.  God’s judgment included confusing their language and scattering them over the face of the earth (Gen. 11:5-9). 

God’s Righteousness with the Patriarchs

     Moses then provided a genealogical account of Noah’s son, Shem, which continued down to the birth of Abram (Gen. 11:10-32), another recipient of God’s grace.  Now, in the life of Abram, we observe the Lord’s commands that Abram leave his homeland and travel to a land that God would eventually give to him (Gen. 12:1).  God also promised Abram that he would have a multitude of descendants and be a blessing to the entire world (Gen. 12:2-3); “So Abram went forth as the LORD had spoken to him” (Gen 12:4).  Here are God’s commands and Abram’s obedience.  Later, in Genesis chapter fifteen, Moses would reveal that Abram believed God’s promise to him, and this would bring the declaration that the Lord “reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6).  “Moses probably recorded Abraham’s faith here because it was foundational for making the Abrahamic Covenant. God made this covenant with a man who believed in Him.”[4] 

     God’s righteous judgments of blessing or cursing continued throughout the book of Genesis for those who obeyed or disobeyed Him.  God judged the household of Pharaoh for taking Sarai, Abram’s wife from him (Gen. 12:17).  God judged the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness (Gen. 13:10; 18:20-21), but spared Lot because of the petition of Abraham (Gen. 18:22-33).  Abraham knew God to be a righteous Judge and that it would be wrong for Him to kill Lot along with the residents of Sodom; so Abraham said to the Lord, “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Gen 18:25).  So God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and spared Lot (Gen. 19:1-25).  Throughout the rest of the book of Genesis it is observed that God directed, blessed and protected Abraham’s son Isaac (Gen. 17:19, 21; 25:5, 11), Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15; 31:3; 32:9-10), and Joseph (Gen. 32:9-5, 21-23; 45:7-9; 50:20). 

God’s Righteousness with Israel

     God then sent His people into Egyptian captivity for four hundred years, as He’d promised to Abraham (Gen. 15:13).  But the Lord also promised He would judge the Egyptians, saying, “I will also judge the nation whom they will serve” (Gen. 15:14).  God’s judgment upon Egypt would come through Moses, Israel’s deliverer.  The judgment upon Egypt further reveals God’s righteousness.  Exodus chapters three through eighteen reveal God’s judgment upon Egypt as well as Israel’s deliverance from tyranny.  In Exodus chapter nineteen Israel enters into a covenant relationship with Yahweh, Who provides a total of 613 commands that are revealed from Exodus chapter twenty through Deuteronomy chapter twenty eight.  Thus the Mosaic Law, a reflection of God’s righteous character, refers to “the statutes and ordinances and laws which the LORD established between Himself and the sons of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai” (Lev. 26:46). 

     The 613 commands stated in the Mosaic Law—which were given exclusively to Israel as His covenant people—are a reflection of His righteous character.  As Israel’s perfect Lawgiver, God bound Himself to His laws, promising blessing or cursing to His people based on whether they obeyed or disobeyed (Deut. 28).  This meant the Israelite living under the Mosaic Code could predict God’s behavior, and this provided a degree of stability for the obedient-to-the-word Israelite.  The Israelite could rely on God to always do what He promised.  There were no surprises. 

     During the dispensation of Israel, God’s laws were to be continually communicated to the whole nation.  This was made clear on Mount Sinai where the Lord told Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction” (Ex. 24:12).  Once the Mosaic Law was given, the Lord assigned the priests as communicators to His people, saying, “They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob, and Your law to Israel” (Deut. 33:10a; cf. Lev. 10:11), and “the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 2:7).  Also, Jewish parents were commanded to teach God’s Law to their children.  Moses ordered, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up” (Deut. 6:6-7).  The Law of God was to permeate all aspects of Jewish society. 

God’s Righteousness with the Church

     God’s righteous expectations for Israel continued until the death of Christ, which brought the Mosaic Law system to a close (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom. 8:2-4; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:5-7, 11; Heb. 8:13), and a new law code was established for the Church.  Israel was under “the Law” of Moses (John 1:17; cf. Deut. 4:44; 5:1; 33:4; John 7:19), whereas the Church is under the “Law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; cf. Gal. 6:2).  Because God is the Author of the Law of Moses as well as the Law of Christ, it is not surprising that He chose to incorporate some of the laws He gave to Israel into the law-code which He has given to the Church.  However, the two law-codes should be viewed separate from each other.  Paul stated the Church-age believer is “no longer under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14; cf. Gal. 5:1-4).  The New Testament speaks of “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2), the “Law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2), “the perfect law of liberty” (Jam. 1:25), and “the royal law” (Jam. 2:8).

     Concerning the Mosaic Law, Paul stated that it was intended to be temporary (Gal. 3:19), that it does not justify anyone (Gal. 2:16, 21; 3:21; cf. Rom. 4:1-5), but was intended to lead men to Christ that they may be justified by faith (Gal. 3:24).  Now that Christ has come and fulfilled every aspect of the Mosaic Law, it has been rendered inoperative as a rule of life (Matt. 5:17-18; Rom. 8:2-4; 10:4; 2 Cor. 3:7, 11; Heb. 8:13).  “As a rule of life, the Law of Moses was temporary … [and] came to an end with the death of the Messiah.”[5]

The Mosaic Law was done away in its entirety as a code. It has been replaced by the law of Christ. The law of Christ contains some new commands (1 Tim. 4:4), some old ones (Rom. 13:9), and some revised ones (Rom. 13:4, with reference to capital punishment). All the laws of the Mosaic code have been abolished because the code has.[6]

     The closing of the Mosaic Law means a dispensational shift has occurred.  Though the Christian is not under the Mosaic Law as a rule of life (Rom. 6:14), he/she is under the Law of Christ (1 Cor. 9:31; Gal. 6:2).  “‘The law of Christ’ is basically Christ’s commandments (Matt. 28:19–20; John 13:34–35; 14:21) revealed through the New Testament writers (John 16:12–13; Gal. 6:2; James 1:25; 2:8, 12) and intended for Church-age believers (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 5:6, 18; 6:2; Heb. 8:10).”[7]  The Christian has specific commands in the New Testament that direct his/her thinking (Rom. 12:2), words (Col. 4:6), and actions (Jam. 1:22), and such commands flow out of God’s righteous character.[8]

     In order to conform to God’s righteous expectations, the Christian must learn and live in agreement with the “Law of Christ” as it is revealed in the New Testament (Gal. 6:2).  It is observed that some of the commands from the Mosaic Law have carried over into the “Law of Christ” (e.g. no other gods, honor father and mother, etc.), but most of Israel’s laws have been abrogated (e.g. slavery laws, tithing, sacrificial system, dietary laws, etc.), and there are some new commands (e.g. do not grieve the Holy Spirit, do not quench the Holy Spirit, love as Christ loved, etc.). 

The Law of Moses has been disannulled and we are now under a new law. This new law is called the Law of Christ in Galatians 6:2 and the Law of the Spirit of Life in Romans 8:2. This is a brand new law, totally separate from the Law of Moses. The Law of Christ contains all the individual commandments from Christ and the Apostles applicable to a New Testament believer. A simple comparison of the details will show that it is not and cannot be the same as the Law of Moses. Four observations are worth noting. First, many commandments are the same as those of the Law of Moses. For example, nine of the Ten Commandments are also in the Law of Christ. But, second, many are different from the Law of Moses. For example, there is no Sabbath law now (Rom. 14:5; Col. 2:16) and no dietary code (Mark 7:19; Rom. 14:20). Third, some commandments in the Law of Moses are intensified by the Law of Christ. The Law of Moses said: love thy neighbor as thyself (Lev. 19:18). This made man the standard. The Law of Christ said: love one another, even as I have loved you (John 15:12). This makes the Messiah the standard and He loved us enough to die for us. Fourth, the Law of the Messiah provides a new motivation. The Law of Moses was based on the conditional Mosaic Covenant and so the motivation was: do, in order to be blessed. The Law of Christ is based on the unconditional New Covenant and so the motivation is: you have been and are blessed, therefore, do.[9]

     Though both are the people of God, there are Biblical distinctions between Israel and the Church.  For example, Israel had a priesthood that was specific to Aaron and the tribe of Levi (Num. 3:6-10), whereas in the Church age, all Christians are priests to God (Rev. 1:5-6).  Israel’s worship was tied to the Tabernacle and later the Temple (Ex. 40:18-38; 2 Chron. 8:14-16), but Christians gather locally, wherever they wish, and their body is the temple of God (1 Cor. 6:19-20; cf. Col. 4:15).  Israel was required to offer animal sacrifices to God (Lev. 4:1-35), but Christians are called to offer spiritual sacrifices (1 Pet. 2:5; cf. Rom. 12:1; Heb. 13:15).  Israelites were required to tithe from the produce of their land (Deut. 14:22-23; 28-29; Num. 18:21), but God requires no tithe from Christians, only a joyful attitude when giving, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7).  Under the Mosaic Law, God demanded punishment for sin and some sins were punishable by death.[10]  Sometimes God Himself executed the punishment (Lev. 10:1-3; 2 Sam. 6:1-7), and other times it was carried out by Israel’s leaders (Ex. 32:19-28).  In the Church age, God does not call Christians to put anyone to death, but has delegated that authority solely to the governments of this world (Rom. 13:1-4), or He does it Himself (Acts 5:1-11; 1 Cor. 11:30; 1 John 5:16).  These are but a few of the distinctions between Israel and Church. 


     These dispensational distinctions are important to understand.  Though one can see God’s righteousness revealed in the commands given to those who lived in the Garden of Eden, it would be wrong for someone living outside of Eden to try to live by those commands.  In fact, it would be impossible, for the commands were tied to the people and conditions of that environment.  Similarly, one can see God’s righteousness revealed in the commands given to Noah, Abraham, and Israel; however, it would be wrong—even impossible—for those living in the Church age to try to live by those commands, seeing how those commands were specific to the people and conditions of that time. 

     God is righteous and He issues commands for people to obey.  Though God’s righteous character never changes, the specific commands He gives to people and groups throughout the millennia have changed.  What God expected from Adam and Eve is different from what He expected of Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the Church, but they always reflect a righteous standard.  Though there are differences in some laws, there is also continuity, and one would expect this from a single Lawgiver.  Confusion among Christians sometimes arises because some of the commands God gave to Israel were incorporated into the commands He’s given to the Church (e.g. nine of the Ten Commandments have been restated with the Church, with Sabbath keeping set aside).  God decides which laws are restated into the new law code and which ones are abrogated.  Christians have the responsibility to learn about God’s righteousness from all of Scripture, and to obey those commands that specifically belong to them.

Steven R. Cook, D.Min.

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[1] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, 351.

[2] The phrase, “and he died” occurs eight times in Genesis chapter 5.  This shows the consequence of death fell to Adam’s descendants, continuing down to the present day.

[3] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis, 193.

[4] Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible, Gen. 15:6.

[5] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology (Tustin, CA., Ariel Ministries, 2001), 373-374.

[6] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth, 351-52.

[7] Charles R. Swindoll and Roy B. Zuck, Understanding Christian Theology, 1014.

[8] This writer is not aware of anyone who has catalogued all the New Testament commands for the Christian. 

[9] Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology: The Missing Link in Systematic Theology, 650–651.

[10] There were certain laws under the Old Testament that brought the death penalty: intentional murder (Ex. 21:12-14; cf. Gen. 9:6), attacking or cursing a parent (Ex. 21:15), kidnapping (Ex. 21:16), habitual rebellion against God (Deut. 17:12), sacrificing to pagan gods (Ex. 22:20), cursing God (Lev. 24:15-16), working on the Sabbath (Ex. 35:2), being a false prophet and leading Israelites into idolatry (Deut. 13:1-5), religious human sacrifice (Lev. 20:2), the practice of divination, sorcery or witchcraft (Ex. 22:18; Deut. 18:9-14), adultery and premarital sex (Lev. 20:10-14; 21:9; Deut. 22:20-22), sex with an animal (Ex. 22:19; Lev. 20:15-16), incest (Lev. 20:11-12, 14), homosexuality (Lev. 18:22; 20:13), and the rape of a married woman (Deut. 22:25-27).