Salvation in the Old Testament

They weren’t saved by animal sacrifices...

They weren’t saved by works...

by Greg Johnson

 

 

 

Question: How were God’s people saved before the coming of Jesus Christ?

 

 

We need to start with the "big-picture" of salvation in the Old Testament. Then we’ll look at a few places—particularly in Romans—that speak directly to the question of salvation prior to Christ's coming. Once we do this, the popular but heretical answers that people were “saved by their works” or “saved by animal sacrifices” can be rejected. We’ll hopefully realize that there’s a lot more grace in the Old Testament than is usually realized!

 

1. BACKGROUND:

Of course, prior to the fall, the means by which people were "saved" was by perfect obedience to the law of God—though it's not really salvation, since there was not yet guilt or sin from which to be "saved". The standard was passing the test about not eating the forbidden fruit—a test that Adam failed.

 

In a sense, this same standard applies for all time. God never lowered his standard—only those who are blameless in his eyes can enter his presence. What he's done—rather than lowering his standard of perfection—is to fulfill that standard for us in the life and death of Jesus, our substitute. Through faith, we receive Christ's righteousness, just as he receives our guilt—which he is punished for (atones for) on the cross. "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us" (2 Cor 5:21).

 

2. Old Testament SALVATION—THE COVENANT

Salvation in the Old Testament isn't discussed primarily in terms of “going to heaven”— but in terms of belonging to God” as his people. This is true of the New Testament, too—heaven is mentioned, but union with Christ is mentioned almost 200 times just in Paul's letters.

 

We see this belonging to God—this covenant—beginning with Abraham. God called Abraham from the nations, making a covenant with him—a solemn oath or commitment—even passing between the dismembered halves of animals in a self-maledictory oath, God saying in essence, "If I ever leave you, may I myself be torn apart" (Gen 15:6-21).

 

God promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation, bless him, and bless all the peoples of the earth through him (Gen 12:1-3). Also included in this promise was the land itself (Gen 15:18-21). It’s in this context that Scripture says, "Abram believed God, and he credited it to him as righteousness" (Gen 15:6). Abraham was justified by faith. God then gave him an outward sign of this covenant relationship in circumcision (Gen 17).

 

What's so striking about all of this is that God did it all—it's salvation by grace alone. Certainly Abram responded to this call—which was a major endeavor, leaving his people and traveling through the desert to a far-off land. But God made the choice. God gave the call. God made all the promises. Salvation was from the Lord.

 

When Abram believed, God saw his faith and credited righteousness to his account, even though Abraham continued to be a sinner (...doubting God's promise of a son, committing adultery with his servant, lying about his wife—almost causing her to end up in an adulterous relationship with a foreign king, etc). Though faith was required and outward signs were taken very seriously—remember how God came after Moses to kill him when Moses failed to circumcise his sons— still, salvation was by grace through faith, according to God's calling.

 

3. MOSAIC LAW

Centuries later, Abraham's descendants (later called Israel) received the Mosaic Law atop Sinai. The regulations God gave his people begin with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and continue on-and-off through Numbers—and were repeated to the Israelites before they entered the Promised Land (...hence Deuteronomy, literally the "second law").

 

But even this law was given in the context of an already-established covenantal relationship. God begins, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt..." (Ex 20:2)—and THEN makes his demands. God didn't claim to belong to any other people on earth, but he had given himself to the family of Abraham, to be their God. The whole Mosaic code needs to be understood in this relational context of covenant grace. Though there were blessings for obedience and cursings for disobedience (what we call fatherly discipline), the commandments were not a means of earning salvation. It's interesting to compare Hebrews 12 and its discussion of God's loving discipline, which follows his discussion of Old Testament saints who lived by faith (chapter 11).

 

God established about five different sacrifices within the Mosaic administration of his covenant, including one for guilt and another for sin—as well as the "big" one annually on the Day of Atonement. In these sacrifices, the guilt of the sinner would symbolically be transferred to the animal (sometimes by the sinner's laying his hands onto the animal), which would then be "punished" (either slaughtered or driven out of the land) in place of the sinner (—it's where we get the term "scapegoat"). These sacrifices prefigure Christ.

 

Given the relational context and the righteousness (justification) by faith that were already a part of the covenant since Abraham's day, I doubt these sacrifices were meant to bring forgiveness in the sense of justification (righteous standing before God). I suspect they brought instead healing to a wounded relationship with God—in the same sense that Christians today are "forgiven" when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9). These deal with the quality of our fellowship with God, not with the establishment of a relationship with God.

 

4. ROMANS

Paul mentions in Romans 3 that Old Testament believers were forgiven "in the forbearance of God" (Rom 3:25). A forbearance is a postponement on a debt—like when a student graduates from college but doesn't have a good enough job to repay his student loans, the feds may say "We'll give you five years— but then you'll have to start paying." In the Old Testament, God gave his people a forbearance until Christ could come and pay their sin-debt for them. In this way they could avoid the punishment for their sins, even though Christ had not yet died for them.

 

When Paul introduces his doctrine of justification by faith alone in this same chapter, be backs it up with the Old Testament, saying it's a "righteousness from God apart from law," but one "to which the Law and the Prophets testify" (Rom 3:21). The "Law and the Prophets" is a technical term for the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament Paul specifically backs up his teaching by citing Abraham's justification by faith from Genesis (Rom 4) and David's speaking of the forgiveness of sins in Psalm 32 (Rom 4:7-8).

 

Paul makes much this same argument in Galatians 3. By faith, we have been engrafted into God's covenant with Abraham—such that Paul can even refer to the New Testament church as "the Israel of God."

 

I realize this is a lot more grace than most Christians assume was in the Old Testament. Perhaps they see lots of laws in the Old Testament, and so assume that salvation was by works. But when I read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) without the broader covenantal relationship that I know I have with God through faith in Jesus, I can easily assume that salvation is by works in the New Testament—though it isn't.

 

The same promise repeated throughout the Old Testament—that God will be our God and we will be his people—is also repeated in the New Testament At the end of the age, when Old Testament and New Testament believers alike stand before their Redeemer, we are told that "they will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God" (Revelation 21:3).

 

Even the promise of the land is fulfilled then. God's heaven comes down to earth (Rev 20:1-2)—it's an earthly eternity in covenant with God. It will be just like Jesus said—the meek will “inherit the land” (or, as it's often translated, “the earth”, Mt 5:5).