How Were People in the Old Testament Saved?

abraham promise

How was Abraham saved? What about Noah? Adam? Moses? David? How did they get to heaven, if Christ hadn’t come to die on the cross and raise from the grave yet?

This is a fairly common question that pretty much anyone reading the Bible has asked (including myself). In this post I will hope to provide a concise, simple answer, from the Bible and from logic, that could be explained in a few minutes, and at the end of the post, I will share some resources for those who are interested in digging deeper into the subject. What I write will not be an exhaustive study on the subject, but something to get the ball rolling.

Answer: People in the Old Testament were saved the same way that people in the New Testament were saved: by grace, through faith in Christ.

But wait, how could someone do that when Christ hadn’t even come yet? And weren’t the OT guys under the old covenant? So, didn’t they have to try and obey God’s law to earn salvation?

Well, let’s look at two pieces of Scripture to help us wrestle with this: first, take a look at Romans 4:1-12, then look at Galatians 3:5-9.

In the Romans passage, Paul is using Abraham as an example for why Christians do not earn their salvation by works, but rather by faith – if salvation is something that can be earned then it is no longer a gift, but is more like a salary. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, talking about Abraham “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Okay, so righteousness is what we need to have right relationship with God (Rom. 3:21, 8:4), and Abraham receives righteousness in Genesis 15, but what did he do to get it? Simple: he believed the Lord. Abraham’s salvation, entirely by faith alone. But how? He didn’t even know who Jesus was, and we know that salvation only comes through Christ (John 14:6, Acts 4:12) – so how could he have been saved by faith in Someone he didn’t even know?

In the Galatians passage, Paul is trying to exhort the Galatian church to trust that the Spirit works in our lives, not by works of law, but in the same way that we were saved: by faith (Gal. 3:2-5). He then, again, uses Abraham as an example of faith, but this time Paul gives a little more detail into how Abraham received his salvation,

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” – Gal. 3:8-9

Paul is saying that way, way back in Genesis 12, thousands and thousands of years before Jesus ever walked the earth, God preached the gospel to Abraham. God, speaking to Abraham about his promised children, looked forward in time to the true, and better Descendant of Abraham: Jesus Christ, who would become the ultimate blessing to all the nations. And we can be safe that that we aren’t stretching an inference about the Bible further than we should- Paul literally says that Abraham put his faith in Christ in Gal. 3:16. Abraham trusted God, and put his faith in God’s ability to fulfill this promise (which was fulfilled in Christ), and God counted Abraham as righteous; the same kind of righteous that He counts us when we put our faith in Christ.

Mark Dever explains this well in this short video,

Logical Argument: If people could be saved through some other means other than putting their faith in Christ, why would Christ need to even come in the first place? 

If there was some way that a human being could obey God’s law, earn God’s favor, and be welcomed into salvation by any other means than putting faith in Christ, than Christ’s sacrifice was not necessary. We see this taught nowhere in the New, or Old Testament, but rather we see Paul clearly explain that, “By the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). And Paul further explains that the purpose of the Law was to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24). People in the OT looked forward to the coming Messiah to atone for their sins. We look backwards to the Messiah who came. But we are both made right with God by the same means: by grace, through faith.

As a final note, it is important to remember that the Bible clearly explains that the Old Testament is meant to point us to Christ (Luke 24:25-26), over (Acts 10:43), and over (John 5:39-40), and over (Luke 24:44-45), and over (1 Pet. 1:10-11), and over again (Rom. 1:2). Jesus is repeatedly astounded that the Pharisees and his disciples are unaware of the main message of the Scriptures, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).

Why Does This Matter?

David Murray, author of Jesus on Every Page(which I highly recommend) explains,

I’d also like to encourage preachers and teachers to be clear and consistent on the question: “How were Old Testament believers saved?” The most common options seem to be:

1. They were saved by obeying the law.

2. They were saved by offering sacrifices.

3. They were saved by a general faith in God.

4. They were saved by faith in the Messiah.

Unless we consistently answer #4, we end up portraying heaven as not only populated by lovers of Christ, but also by legalists, ritualists, and mere theists who never knew Christ until they got there.

Our God is the same, today, yesterday and tomorrow, and His plan of salvation has always, entirely rested on His mercies, not our merits.

Resources For Further Study:

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One thought on “How Were People in the Old Testament Saved?

  1. Nice post, Marc! Super important categories to have—I’m glad you’re sharing them.

    Have you reflected on the way Paul speaks of circumcision as a sign and seal to Abraham of the imputed righteousness of Christ he received by faith (Romans 4:11)? As well as the fact that Abraham gave that sign and seal of imputed righteousness to his children? Pretty interesting stuff, especially when you think about how New Covenant ordinances/sacraments (i.e. baptism) signify and seal the same content as Paul says circumcision did to OT believers and their children. IMO, as soon as one grants continuity of salvation in the OT and NT, the natural step is to look at what other continuities the bible grants between the two. Just a little food for thought =]

    Hope you’re well.

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