Very frequently people ask us questions about salvation in the OT. Before Christ died on the cross, what did a person have to do in order to have eternal life?
There is much confusion on how people were saved in the OT era. Many people mistakenly believe that prior to the cross people were saved by offering animal sacrifices and by keeping the Law of Moses. Many others, including many Free Grace people, wrongly think that OT believers weren’t sure of their salvation, didn’t believe in eternal security, and didn’t know that eternal life was by faith alone in the Messiah alone.
We can go to the OT to determine how people were saved during that time (see, for example, Gen 15:6; Isa 52:13-53:12; Hab 2:4). However, for the purposes of this brief article, we will let the NT interpret the OT for us. Scripture is without error. Therefore, when a passage in the NT tells us how people prior to the cross obtained eternal salvation, we can be sure that is how they were indeed saved.
Not by Offering Animal Sacrifices
While animal sacrifices were prescribed by God, they were never intended to provide eternal salvation. According to the author of Hebrews, “in those sacrifices there was a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins” (Heb 10:3-4). Animal sacrifices showed the worshipers their need and made them able to approach God. They also pointed ahead to the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 8:56).
Not by Keeping the Commandments
While God gave Israel the Law of Moses, it was never designed to provide eternal salvation. “Therefore, by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:20). No one ever gained, or ever will gain, eternal salvation by keeping God’s commandments. To break even one command in your entire lifetime is all it takes to stand condemned before God (Jas 2:10). And yet “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
Not by Believing in God Apart from the Messiah
While God expects people to believe He exists, that belief has never been sufficient to obtain eternal life. Eternal life has always been by faith in the Messiah whom God sends. No OT person was ever saved apart from such faith. How do we know this? The apostle Paul uses Abraham as an example of all who believe in Christ for eternal salvation apart from works (Rom 4:1-5; Gal 3:6-14). Paul’s example is invalid if Abraham wasn’t believing in the coming Messiah and Him alone for eternal life.
Similarly, Jesus rebuked his Jewish audience for not believing in Him, when their forefather, Abraham, had (John 8:37-58, see esp. v 56, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day”). “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me” (John 5:39). Many Jews mistakenly thought that by careful observance of the commands of the OT they would merit eternal life. Yet eternal life was only by faith in the Messiah. They claimed to believe Moses, who wrote the Pentateuch, yet to them the Lord said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).
A common misconception prevails that the content of the gospel changed as God gave more revelation. This causes some to think that prior to Calvary people were saved by works, or by faith in God apart from faith in the coming Messiah. However, the essential content of the gospel has not changed at all. Eternal salvation has always been conditioned upon faith in the Messiah. They looked ahead. We look back. We both believe in the Messiah for eternal life. (Of course, prior to Jesus’ beginning His ministry people who believed in the Messiah did not know what His given name would be. After that point people had to believe specifically in Jesus, since the coming Messiah had now come and His name was known.)
“By Faith Alone in Christ Alone”
Grace Evangelical Society’s motto summarizes an accurate explanation of OT and NT salvation. There is, was, and always will be only one gospel. The gospel of Adam, Moses, Abraham, and David is also the gospel according to Jesus, Peter, Paul, and the other apostles. It always has been and always will be by faith alone in Christ alone.
When Jesus conducted His ministry, the Jewish people were still under the Law of Moses. Yet Jesus promised the immediate reception of eternal life to all who believed in Him (e.g., John 3:14- 18; 4:10ff.; 5:24; 6:47; 11:25-27). His promise did not wait to go into effect until the cross. And John was completely comfortable proclaiming Jesus’ saving message to people in the Church Age (John 20:31). If the gospel changed after Pentecost, then one could not be saved by believing the gospel which Jesus preached!
Jesus’ teaching to correct the faulty understanding of the gospel prevalent among most of the Jews was, for the most part, rejected. Though the earliest believers were nearly all Jewish, most Jews rejected the free gift of eternal life (John 1:11). Jesus told of the self-righteous Pharisee who thanked God that he was such a good person–quite unlike the tax collectors and harlots of this world! (Luke 18:9-12). That Pharisee, Jesus said, was not justified before God (Luke 18:14). Just as today most people–Jewish or Gentile–do not believe in Him for eternal life, neither did most people before Calvary. The way that leads to life has always been narrow and there have always been few who have found it (Matt 7:13-14).
Unbelievers are lost. Recently I received a call from a man asking about OT salvation because the issue had come up at his church. Someone in a Bible study had argued that since OT people could be saved without believing in Christ, so could people today. He felt that those who never heard the gospel could be saved if they were sincerely trying to follow their religion, just as people before Calvary were saved by sincerely trying to keep their religion.
The logic seems fine–except for one thing. People in the OT who didn’t believe in the coming Messiah were lost (John 5:39-47). No one was ever saved by keeping his own religion. There is no contradiction here. People today, as in the past, can only be saved by believing in Christ. And people today, just as in the past, who have not heard the gospel, have the benefit of general revelation. God is drawing all, and to anyone who responds to that drawing, God will send more light, and ultimately the gospel message itself.
Assurance of eternal security has nothing to do with works. Assurance has always been based solely on believing God’s promise in the Messiah. I know that I’m eternally secure the same way Martha, Abraham, Moses, and David knew–because of believing Christ’s promise (John 8:56; 11:25-27; Rom 4:1-8; Heb 11:8-29). His promise is definite, clear, objective. It is external to me. No matter what I do, His promise remains. My works, good or bad, do nothing to alter His promise. Believers in OT times, like NT believers, understood this. Though many people in OT times, like many today, may have been linking assurance to works (Matt 7:21-23; John 6:28), that never was a correct understanding of the gospel. That is salvation by works, not salvation by grace through faith plus nothing. If an OT person thought he had to do good works to stay saved, or to prove he was saved, then he didn’t believe the promise. In order to gain eternal life then, as now, people had to believe that Christ guarantees eternal security to all who simply believe in Him for it.
Explain OT salvation by means of clear NT texts. Scripture accurately interprets itself. Thus the simplest way to explain OT salvation is to go to a passage like Rom 4:1-8. There Paul uses Abraham and David to show that OT people believed in the Messiah for eternal life. They knew salvation was a gift, not a debt. They knew it was by faith alone, apart from their works. When people question you about OT salvation, suggest to them one of three or four clear passages. In addition to Romans 4, I would suggest John 5:38-47, Gal 3:6-14, and Heb 10:1-18. Remind them that the Gospel of John contains Jesus’ message to “OT people” on how they could have eternal life, and that that message is still in effect today. Dealing with this issue is a great way to share the gospel because it answers a basic question all people have. If people were saved before Calvary by keeping God’s commands, surely they can be saved that way today. But they weren’t and they can’t be! Salvation has been and always will be, as the Reformers said, “sola fide“–by faith alone.