How Were People Saved in the Old Testament?

hammer-719066_1280I love a good question, and this one certainly fits the bill: How were people saved in the Old Testament?

I believe the Bible is clear about this issue, with Romans 4 being the definitive passage. I urge you to read and study this chapter carefully – it’s a treasure chest of truth and will bring much joy to your heart!

Let’s cut right to the chase:
I believe the Bible teaches that from the beginning of time, there has been only one way to receive salvation – by grace through faith.

Paul answers this question by directing us to two Old Testament examples: Abraham and David.

“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about — but not before God. What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness” (Romans 4:1-5).

Note that Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Was Abraham justified (declared righteous in God’s sight and forgiven of his sin) before the law was given, or after the law was given? Before. About 600 years before the Law of Moses was given (and even before Abraham was circumcised), Abraham was declared righteous by God.

And what how was Abraham justified? By his works, or by his faith? By his faith.

Let’s continue with Paul’s second example:
“David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the one to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:
‘Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him.’”
(Romans 4:6-7)

Here Paul quotes Psalm 32:1-2, which was written by David. The apostle says that David describes a person to whom God has credited righteousness apart from works. Such a person has received forgiveness and the covering of their sins. Truly they are blessed because God will never count their sin against them! And He bestows this blessing without taking their works into consideration.

I urge you to read Psalm 32 and ask these questions: Does David sound like a man who is trying to earn God’s forgiveness by keeping the Law? Or does he write this psalm as a man who understands that God’s forgiveness is received by faith expressed through humble repentance and confession of sin?

Like Abraham, David experienced God’s forgiveness of sin “apart from works.” Was David forgiven before or after the Law was given? After. About 400 years after the Law was given, David was forgiven “apart from works” (Romans 4:6).

So, before the Law was given, Abraham was justified by faith, apart from works. And after the Law was given, David also was justified by faith, apart from works.

What I’m saying is not a new teaching. There are many evangelicals who hold to this view. Here are some resources that expound the position that salvation has always been “by grace through faith,” and that the Bible never teaches salvation by works of the Law.

How Were Old Testament Saints Saved?
By Hank Hanegraaff, “The Bible Answer Man”

“Many people falsely assume that only New Testament believers are saved by grace whereas Old Testament believers were saved by their obedience to the law of Moses and not by grace. The truth is that both the Old and New Testaments clearly teach that everyone who is saved, throughout all history, is saved the same way: by grace, through faith, on account of Christ alone.”

How Were People Saved Before Jesus Came in the Flesh?

“Were there multiple ways of salvation prior to the coming of Jesus in space and time to die as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind? The answer must be a resounding “No.” Paul explained in Romans 4 that salvation has always been and will always be by God’s grace and received through faith alone.”

How Did People Get Saved in the Old Testament?

“People in the Old Testament were saved by faith just like people today. Three passages to examine in the Old Testament regarding justification by faith are Ezekiel 18:26-28, Isaiah 1:18, and Isaiah 55:7.

The Old Testament system of sacrifices was never intended to be salvific (cf. Hebrews 10:4 and context). What it was intended to show was the seriousness of sin.
An important point that Paul makes regarding Abraham is in Romans 4:10:
“How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised.”

Paul is showing that Abraham was justified by his faith after which God sealed it with a covenant sign (circumcision) which is equivalent to a Christian’s baptism (cf. Col. 2:12-13). Therefore, people in the Old Testament were saved by faith just like people today.”

How Were Jews Saved in the Old Testament?

“In both eras (Old Testament and New Testament) God’s people were saved by grace alone. God is holy, and thus, fallen humanity was never saved by observing the Law. In both the Old and New Testament era God’s standard for us remains the same: perfect righteousness, so at all times we would have to keep the Law perfectly to earn our own redemption and win God’s acceptance. The Law is therefore, not meant to save but rather strip us of all hope of looking to self for salvation, a tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24) for it condemns each of us exposing the deep roots of our sinful nature and thus our desperate need for a Savior. But Christ alone fulfilled all righteousness (Matt 3:15), a sinless savior who died and counts His people free from the condemnation of the Law.

Old Testament saints were clearly saved the same way the New Testament saints were, by grace alone, through faith alone, in the person and work of Christ alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone.

All saints of all time have their hope in Him alone for their redemption. Christ is the center of history and in this light, we should read and interpret both Old and New Testaments.”

What Then is the Purpose of the Law of Moses?
There are Christians who believe that the Old Testament teaches salvation by works and the New Testament teaches salvation by faith. In other words, God has had two different ways for man to be reconciled to God.

According to this view, before Christ came the Jews had to keep the law to be saved. Now that Jesus has died, God’s methodology for granting forgiveness is different. We are no longer required to obey the law to be saved, because the New Testament says “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law” (Romans 3:28).

As indicated above, I disagree with this interpretation. There are many New Testament verses that teach the truth of Roman 3:28. One of my favorites is Ephesians 2:8-9 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.”

We are saved by grace, through faith, not by works – specifically, the works of the law.
The point we’ve been making here is that this “faith not works” approach to salvation has been the only way people have ever been saved.

Why, then, does Paul say repeatedly that salvation is “not by works”? Some would say, “Because this was the Old Testament way, and Paul is telling people that there’s a new and better way, the way of Christ, the way of grace.”

Hmmm. Again I must disagree.

Instead, could it be that many Jews, especially the Pharisees, had corrupted the message of the Old Testament. Yes, there are hundreds of rules in the Law of Moses. These rules had been taught for centuries as the way a Jew was required to live. And by time of Jesus, a system had been created that essentially said, “If you want to be accepted by God, you must adhere to this system. You must earn your salvation by doing good works.”

Paul is not saying, “God’s way to receive salvation has changed.” Rather, he’s saying, “My fellow Jews, you’ve got it all wrong. You’ve misinterpreted the Scriptures and turned forgiveness into something God never intended it to be. God’s way has always been ‘by grace, through faith, not by works.’ But you’ve twisted that into something else entirely. Let’s get back to the right way, the way of faith, the way of Abraham and David. They were saved by faith. And so are we. This is the way it’s always been, but you Jews have turned the meaning of God’s Word upside down and perverted the clear teaching of Scripture.”

I get so excited when I read passages like 2 Timothy 3:15, where Paul says, “you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” What “Scriptures” would Paul be referring to? Well, the New Testament was still being written at this time, so he could not have been referring to that. He was talking about the only Scriptures in existence – the 39 books of the Old Testament!

Yes, the Old Testament plainly teaches “salvation through faith in Christ.” Passages like Genesis 15:6 and Psalm 32:1-2 make it clear that works are not the means of salvation, faith alone is.

What, then, is the purpose of the Law of Moses, as spelled out in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy? An excellent answer to this question is found in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart. Chapter 9 is devoted to this issue and it entitled “The Law(s): Covenant Stipulations for Israel” (pages 163-180). Please allow me to quote from this book to bring clarity to this topic, for I agree wholeheartedly with what these men say. I highly recommend that you get this book and study this chapter! I found it most enlightening.

Fee/Stuart hold to the view expressed above regarding what the Law was not intended to do. “Nowhere in the Old Testament is it suggested that anyone was saved by keeping the Law . . . The Law was not thought of in Israel as a ‘means of salvation.’ It was neither given for that reason nor could it possibly function in that way” (p. 169-170).

Then what is the purpose of the Law? “Rather, it functioned as a way of establishing loyalty between God and his people. The Law simply represented the terms of agreement of loyalty that Israel had with God. The Law in this sense thus stands as a paradigm (model). It is hardly a complete list of all the things one could or should do to please God in ancient Israel. The Law presents, rather, examples or samples of what it means to be loyal to God” (p. 170).

God expected loyalty from Israel because He had entered into a covenant with their father Abraham, promising them the land of Canaan, countless descendants, and the blessing of being the nation through whom God would bless the whole world. Then God brought His people out of the Egypt, the land of slavery. Before taking them back to the Promised Land, He brought them to Mt. Sinai and said, in effect, “I have done so much for you. I love you and want the best for you, and if you follow my law, you’ll continue to be blessed. Here are the guidelines for how to live as my people.”

In other words, the Law was a “discipleship manual” for Israel. It explained the specific ways they could demonstrate their love and devotion to God.

I would add two other purposes of the Law:

1. The Law makes us aware of our sin and our need of a Savior.
This is taught throughout the New Testament, especially in Romans:
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20).

“Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet.’” (Romans 7:7; see also Romans 7:8-13 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11)

2. The Law points us to Jesus.
The ritual components of the law were object lessons that prepared the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. The sacrifices, the priesthood, the tabernacle and temple, the feasts – God used all these things to meet the spiritual needs of the sincere Old Testament believer. Yet they were temporary, for when Christ came, everything represented in these rituals was fulfilled in Him. The book of Hebrews makes this abundantly clear.

For example, God has always required a blood sacrifice to atone for sins. “Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). The Law contained many specifics on how these sacrifices were to be offered. The truly repentant Jew would place his hands on the head of the animal, signifying that his sin was being transferred to the innocent animal, who would die as a substitute for the sinner. This is a vivid illustration of the one supreme sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross of Calvary, for Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

My favorite passage in this regard is Galatians 3:24 – “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.”

Thanks be to God for His gracious gift of the Law! God provided a perfect standard which no one can live up to. We repeatedly break the Law and the Holy Spirit convicts us of our guilt, making us painfully aware of our imperfections. When confronted with our inability to keep the law, we cry out with David, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight . . . Surely I have been a sinner from birth” (Psalm 51:3-5).

The realization that we have fallen far short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) produces the godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Repentance, in turn, leads to the salvation found in Jesus alone (2 Corinthians 7:10), for He is the one and only Savior of sinners. He came to seek and to save the lost; He came to call sinners to repentance.

When we come to the end of ourselves and in despair run to Jesus for forgiveness, our sins are washed away and we are reconciled to God. When we admit that we cannot save ourselves because “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” in the sight of God (Isaiah 64:6), only then will God clothe us with the righteousness of Christ.

We trust Christ to do what the Law could never do – rescue us from the wrath of God that hung over our heads like a black cloud of eternal destruction. God’s love is poured out on us through the death of Christ, and the moment we believe, we are “rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13).

The works of the Law never saved anyone. But God uses the Law to make us aware of our sin, so we can embrace Jesus as Savior and King. When used properly, the Law takes us to the foot of the cross, right where we need to be – for there we can “fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).

Wayne Davies

Wayne Davies

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2 Responses to How Were People Saved in the Old Testament?

  1. Dan Smythe says:

    Hi Wayne: Thanks for this article — it is superb. You (and those you have quoted) have done a great job on bringing clarity to this often misunderstood issue. There are two other texts I would encourage you to add in: Romans 5:20a is excellent on showing that the law was brought in to show us our sin — and then, very important is Romans 8:4 which shows that having been saved by faith though Christ, that OT “Discipleship Manual” function of the law still is applicable to us as New Covenant believers — as the law still shows us how to live in a way that pleases the Lord and honors his glory — even as we do so imperfectly in this world — and always with the sacrifice of Christ covering our sins of both omission and commission — as fully justified believers in Him. The law for us is (1) a mirror (to show us our sin), (2) a portrait [like a picture of God’s holiness hanging on the wall showing us “what holiness (godliness) looks like as it is “on display” — which we can now “in Christ” and “from love …not pressure” pursue in the new way of the Spirit [Rom 7:6] as our Discipleship manual as believers today], and (3) the law is a signpost pointing us to Christ for the provision of what we can never obtain apart from Him.

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