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How were OT saints saved before Christ?

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How were OT saints saved before Christ?
Posted on June 16, 2020  - By Dr. David Brooks

How were people before Christ, like the Old Testament saints, saved? Since God chose to reveal His plan of salvation progressively, were there two ways of salvation before and after Christ? Because how could those who lived before Jesus believe in what had not even been revealed to them at the time?

The question of how people were saved before Christ came was so important to God that He answered it in the first half of the first book of the Bible — a significant fact since there are 66 books in the Bible, which was written over a period of 1,500 years.

The first matter is what is meant by being saved. We are condemned people needing salvation because we are sinners, and we are sinners because we have not lived up to God’s standards. Since righteousness is abiding by His standards, we are — by definition and by practice — unrighteous. 

To have our status with God corrected, we need to be declared righteous, which is called justification. The root word and meaning of ‘justification’ and ‘justify’ in both the Old Testament (Hebrew) and New Testament (Greek) is ‘righteous’. We want God to consider us righteous; so, we want Him to justify us.

One way to heaven

Some people believe that before Christ came, salvation (or justification) came by keeping the Law of Moses. The NT is clear that we are justified by faith, not by the Law. This would suggest that God had two ways to justify people: first by the Law and later by faith. 

Some people believe that before Christ came, salvation (or justification) came by keeping the Law of Moses

Others believe that justification in the OT was through belief in Christ. They say that, in the OT, people realised the Messiah would come to die for their sins, so they placed their trust in Him before he came.

Scripture presents a different picture than either of the above. Centuries before God gave the Law of Moses, He considered Abraham righteous — He justified him — because of His faith (Genesis 15:6). Afterwards, God commanded Him to live a life of integrity and walk with, or have fellowship with, Him (Genesis 17:1). He also referred to him commanding his descendants to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19). 

Faith was necessary to be justified, and obedience was necessary to walk with God after being justified. Romans 4:3, in discussing salvation after Christ, refers to Abraham’s justification by faith, showing that salvation before and after Christ (Romans 3:22, 28) depends on faith (cf. Romans 4:9-12 also). 

Saved by faith

Since Christ has come, died for our sins, and risen from the dead, our faith is in Him. He pointed out that He is the only way to God the Father (John 14:6). Before He came, if people did not know about Him, in what did they put their faith or trust in order to be justified? They believed what God said. 

In Genesis 15:5, God made a promise to Abraham and said nothing about Jesus. He simply said Abraham would have countless descendants. The next verse says Abraham believed God and so God considered him righteous. Romans 4:18-22 makes this exact argument. He believed that promise (Romans 4:18) and “that is why” (Greek dio, “therefore,” the result of what preceded) God considered him righteous (Rom 4:22).

In Genesis 15:5, God made a promise to Abraham and said nothing about Jesus. He simply said Abraham would have countless descendants

Before Christ came, a person was saved, or justified, by believing what God said. The Old Testament does not state what each person believed, though we see in Joshua 2:9-11 that Rahab believed what she heard about Yahweh and changed her allegiance from other gods to the Lord. Naaman (2 Kings 5:15) and Ruth (Ruth 1:16) did similarly. None of these three were Israelites to whom the Law of Moses was given.

This might seem confusing to us, because what God revealed to different people might have been different. For example, He did not tell Rahab, Ruth or Naaman what he told Abraham. Though that is true, He has told all the world since that Christ died for our sins and what we are to believe. We are to believe in Christ (Romans 10:9-10). 

Order of salvation

Salvation and justification have been through faith since the beginning. The object of faith was always God and what He revealed about Himself in spoken words (Genesis 15:5-6) or deeds (Joshua 2:9-11; 2 Kings 5:8-15). 

Faith in God has always included commitment to Him (e.g. Joshua 2:9-11; Ruth 1:15; 2 Kings 4:17). Obedience and fellowship follow justification for us (John 14:15, 21, 23), as they did for Abraham (Genesis 15:5, then 17:1). Notice also that Israel was saved from slavery before the Law was given. 

By these events, God illustrated that saving precedes obedience. Obedience does not earn saving.

Dr. David Brooks

About Dr. David Brooks

David Brooks is a senior professor of Hebrew & Old Testament at Criswell College, Dallas, where he lives with his wife and four children. Having been raised with an emphasis on international missions, he often accepts international teaching assignments while also teaching adjunctively at Dallas Theological Seminary.



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