Tuesday, April 01, 2008

How Were Old Testament Believers Saved? (Transcript)

How Old Testament believers were saved can shed a lot of light on how our great and gracious and just God thinks and works. Therefore it can also shed light on our own salvation even today, and therefore things like our own relationship to the Lord, and our witnessing or evangelism.

In line with that let's admit that there is much that we don't know about how Old Testament believers were saved. In many cases, we don't even know for sure who was saved. There have been endless debates about King Saul, for example, chosen by God, but ultimately rejected by God as King of Israel. Will King Saul be in heaven? The ongoing debate would indicate that we just can't say.

In examining how Old Testament believers are saved, let's just dive in and look at several things we do know from Scripture. I'll number them for easy reference.

Many Were Saved

1. We know that many were indeed saved. David reflects in the Psalms the wonder of being “in” with God, and having one's sins forgiven. Though it may make us wonder how they could be saved, since the Bible teaches that the blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins. Which brings us to number two.

The Blood of Bulls and Goats

2. The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins (Heb. 10:4). If this is true then we have a real problem, because it's all they had. But I want to come back to this point later.

Back To Eden

3. We get clues to how Old Testament believers were saved all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Adam and Eve sinned, we know that God killed animals, shed their blood so to speak, and clothed Adam and Eve with the skins. Most Bible teachers would agree that this was a somewhat primitive picture of salvation by grace through the shedding of blood. And I want to come back to this later, also.

Not Saved By Works

4. We know of no place in the Old Testament that indicates that anyone was ever saved by their own works or effort, by doing anything to gain God's salvation. This is a vital foundational point.

That's not to say there weren't times of sober commandments from the Lord, both to individuals and of course to Israel as a nation. And God in His holiness demanded obedience to those commandments, and sometimes brought devestating retribution on those who didn't obey.

But no indication is ever given that such obedience brought about the salvation of those who obeyed. Which is a good thing, since no one ever obeyed perfectly anyway, until Jesus Himself did so.

The Covering Of Sins

5. Under the Old Covenant, there was a provision made for the covering of the sins of the people, through the sacrifice of animals on the altar of the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. The Tabernacle was a tent-like structure which was built to God's specifications during the time Israel wandered in the wilderness, and could be packed up and carried from place to place. The Temple was built later as a permanent structure of immense beauty, much of it covered in pure gold.

But both had an altar on which animals were slain by the priests, in various ways and at various times, to cover the sins of the Israelites.

A New Heart?

6. We said previously that the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins, and what we just said in number 5 is basically why, because they were merely covered. But there is another aspect of salvation missing in the Old Testament. The nature of man was left unchanged by the sacrifices. Even covering of sins wasn't enough to give a person a new heart.

Now there is some discussion of whether a person in the Old Testament was regenerated, and personally I lean toward saying, “No”, simply because the Prophets spoke of a future New Covenant in which God would take away the heart of stone and give a heart of flesh. That's the essence of regeneration, the giving of a new heart or new nature. And since it was promised for a future time, I would conclude that it wasn't the norm in the Old Testament.

And yet, Old Testament believers did believe God at times. Since we may conclude that they were born dead in their sins and trespasses, enemies of God, just as people are today of course, how could they believe God without first being regenerated? I'm not being dogmatic here, but it seems to me that they were somehow given the gift of faith from God. This is consistent with the principle of Grace, which we will return to later.

But that leads to number 7, where we talk about the sunrise understanding of something we call Justification.

Abraham's Righteousness

7. We see in the story of Abraham something which is revolutionary to the thinking of anyone who believes that we earn our way to God by our good deeds or good works. In Genesis 15:6 we read an amazing thing. We read the first account of the basis of God's gift of His righteousness. This basis of God's gift of His righteousness is, and always has been, and always will be, believing what God says, or what the Bible calls faith.

Faith and believing are the same thing. When we say we have faith, we're merely saying that we believe what God said. Faith in Christ is believing what God has said about Him. God said Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins. We believe it. God says Jesus rose from the dead, we believe it. God says Jesus is Lord, we believe it.

Just a sidenote: that's why it's silly to say you have faith for a new car, for example. Because God didn't say you would have a new car. He did say Jesus rose from the dead, and He did say that those who believe in Him would not perish but have everlasting life. See the difference? End of sidenote.

So back to Genesis 15:6. This is what it says. “And he [that is, Abraham, or Abram as he was then named, he] believed in the Lord, and He [that is, the Lord] accounted it to him for righteousness.”

By the way, Bible scholars tell us that this was sort of an accounting term. You know, like when you have debits and credits on an accounting sheet. And when Abraham believed God, God credited His own righteousness to Abraham's account. He declared Abraham righteous, or as we say in Theology, He justified Abraham. That's Justification.

But this truth from Genesis 15:6 was so important that it was quoted three times in the New Testament. By Paul in Rom. 4:3 and Galatians 3:6, and by James in James 2:23. Why was it so important? Let's go to number 8 for that.

The Gospel Seed

8. Abraham didn't just believe God about any old thing. He believed God, in what we would see as a primitive way, about the Savior, the Messiah. God had promised Abraham that he would have a son, his seed, a miraculous event in Abraham's old age. And from that son would come the nation Israel, also called the seed of Abraham. And from that nation would come the Messiah, also called the seed of Abraham. And of course, from the Messiah would come the spiritual seed of Abraham, us believers. All of which was primitively portrayed symbolically by God to Abraham when He showed him the stars and promised that Abraham's descendants would be just as un-countable.

This was no more than a primitive portrayal of what we call the Gospel. And to this day, when one believes God about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, they are declared righteous, they are justified by God. Now more than just that happens under the New Covenant, but we'll come back to that.

All Saved Through Faith

9. The basis on which Abraham was justified or declared righteous was the same basis on which all Old Testament believers were justified, and that is faith, or believing God.

Four Things

10. So to recap a little, we see four things that existed in Old Testament salvations:

a. Grace, since God provided the faith for His elect to believe, apart from their works;

b. Faith, since God credited their faith to them as righteousness, that is, He justified them by faith;

c. A temporary covering for sins, through blood sacrifices;

d. The forgiveness of sins.

Three Things Missing

11. But along with those wonderful things that did exist in the Old Testament, we see some things that were not in operation, and yet are important to final salvation. Without these things, there could be no final salvation, and the believers in the Old Testament would be lost.

Here are three things that were missing in the Old Testament:

a. The first thing missing was a new heart, or new nature. Without a new nature, without being regenerated, a person is incapable of finally being saved and brought into the spiritual Kingdom of God. And certainly incabable of being brought into Heaven in the presence of God.

b. The second thing missing was the taking away of sins. Remember, the blood of bulls and goats could not take away sins. So even though their sins were forgiven, there had to be something else. Something was missing. And what was missing was a sacrifice better than the sacrifice of animals, bull, goats, lambs, and so forth.

c. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The New Covenant not only promised a new heart, it promised that the laws of God would be put on the hearts and minds of His people, and it also promised something else. That God would cause them to walk in His ways. How would this be done? By His Spirit indwelling them. And that was not generally the case in the Old Testament, though there were exceptions I won't go into here.

A Dilemma

12. So we've concluded that Old Testament believers were saved, yet we've concluded that some of the ingredients for their salvation were missing. Isn't that a contradiction? No, and we'll conclude with answering that seeming dilemma in number 13, and then we'll make one last comment in number 14.

The New Covenant Supplies What's Missing

13. The final answer to the salvation of Old Testament believers is ironically the same answer to the salvation of New Covenant believers, and that is the New Covenant. In the New Covenant that which is missing for the Old Testament believers is retroactively applied to those Old Testament believers.

First a quick sidenote: Remember that the New Covenant was not promised specifically to the Nations, to Gentiles. It was promised to Israel, although we Gentiles were graciously grafted in to this wonderful “salvation by grace through faith” plan of God.

And so the New Covenant is retroactively applied to Old Testament believers, Jews and Gentiles alike. And the three things we said were missing in the case of Old Testament believers, were fulfilled and applied. Here are the three things, and how they were fulfilled in Christ.

a. The first is a new heart, or regeneration. And this is exactly what happens when the Spirit of God, through the preaching of the Gospel, causes a person today to be born again. The believer is given the new heart promised by the Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31). How exactly this is applied to Old Testament believers we don't know, but this may be what Peter referred to in 1 Peter 3:19, speaking of the Holy Spirit preaching to the “spirits in prison”. One thing is true, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.

b. The second missing thing now supplied by the New Covenant is the taking away of sins. No longer are our sins merely covered over by the blood of animals. Through the death of Christ, the greater High Priest, and His shed blood, our sins are now taken away. Hebrews 9:26 says, “...but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”

And 1 John 3:5 says, “And you know that He was manifested to take away our sins, and in Him there is no sin.”

God pictures it by saying that our sins are thrown into the sea, and put away as far as the East is from the West. No longer just covered. I praise Him for that.

c. The third missing thing graciously supplied now in the New Covenant, is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If you don't have the Spirit of Christ, you are not His, Romans 8:9 tells us. His indwelling us is now a very part of our salvation, our new Life in Christ. We become one spirit with Him (1 Cor. 6:17).

And it's this union with Christ by which He leads us through His Word. Or as the Prophet Ezekiel promised, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes...”

Or as Paul tells the Philippians, “...it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

And so we see that all the loose ends are tied up for the salvation of the Old Testament believers. God's astounding and miraculously laid plans have not failed. His elect ones will come home. His elect ones will be saved. And the provision for their salvation is complete.

Amazing Grace

14. I want to say one last word, which applies to Old Testament believers and applies to you, if you are a believer in Jesus Christ. Please remember this, if you don't remember anything else.

It's all by Grace. It's all a free gift from God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. It's all by Grace.

Not only our initial salvation. But keeping our salvation. And our acceptance by God is by grace through Jesus Christ. He loves us. He accepts us. He declares us righteous. And nothing can change that. Nothing.

It was always by grace, since the Garden of Eden, and it's still by grace. Praise the Lord.


Anonymous said...

Praise God!

Great blog post...

It's amazing to think that:

1. OT people were saved by grace not works...
2. NT people were saved by grace not works...
3. Yet, most Christians want to start living the "Christian life" by WORKS -- not Grace!

To quote Paul, "you foolish Galatians..." :)

Anyways, I like your blog so far, you should check mine out! greatchristianlife dot com - I think you'll like it...

With Love,

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, Caleb. I enjoyed your blog, too. Keep up the good work.


Anna said...

Thank you for putting this out there. It is beautifully inspiring. I have heard many different opinions of this over the years, but I feel you have said it best. I believe the Holy Spirit truly led you in sharing this.

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks so much, Anna, for your comments.

Mrs. Lindblom said...

I stumbled upon this blog post through a Google search. I'm so glad I did! I have been searching Scriptures and praying that God would open my eyes and give me wisdom to this mystery of how believers in the Old Testament were redeemed for weeks now. I just haven't been able to wrap my mind around it. This article so clearly spelled it out for me. Thank you so much!

Terry Rayburn said...

Mrs. Lindblom,

Your welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

hannibalian said...


Thanks for the thorough and helpful post. It's a beautiful thing to really wrestle with things like this from Scripture's point of view and not simply from our systematics and theological grids. Much appreciation.

Terry Rayburn said...


Thanks, and may God bless you by always working in you to have that attitutde.


M said...

Great article!

Would like to have more references to Bible, when you say some or other idea!

How would you explain, that in OT God also forgives the sins. At least Bible says that.

So Heb.letter in NT says sins can not be forgiven by goat's blood, but Lev.5:10; 5:13; 5:18. says sins are forgiven?

What is your answer to that Terry?

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree with you on the missing "no change of heart" in the OT.
Psalm 51:15-17

15 O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.

16 For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.

17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

Ezekiel 18:30-32

30 Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin.

31 Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

32 For I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye.

gail elizabeth said...

This is such a great response to this question, easy to follow and understand. My home fellowship last night was pondering this very question and we were left with the"assignment" of answering it. You have made my work very easy. Thank you and may the Lord bless you!

Terry Rayburn said...

Thank you Gail. Blessings to you and yours too.

Gary said...

Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God's covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was "cut off" from God's promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

"Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

"And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you."

This covenant wasn't just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a "decision for God" when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time "decision for God" upon reaching an "Age of Accountability" in order to be saved.

Therefore Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being "cut off" from God's promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

Christ said, "He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned."

It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.

Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
An orthodox Lutheran blog

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