Old Testament Salvation
Salvation Before the Cross
We praise the Lord for His wonderful salvation. God the Son became Man and died upon a cross, taking upon Himself the punishment for our sins. When an individual puts his faith in Christ as Saviour, God cleanses and forgives him, and gives him the gift of eternal life (Jn. 3:16; Eph. 1:7).
"The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). No good works of ours can earn that, or it would not be a gift (Rom. 4:4-5). Salvation is not a "do" but a "done." In simple trust, we commit ourselves to what God has already done for us, in Christ. "The Father has sent the Son as Saviour of the world" (I Jn. 4:14).
But what happened before Christ came? Could people be saved back then, as well? And if so, how? In answer to these questions, there are a number of key factors to be considered.
1. They Believed in Eternal Salvation
The Old Testament saints looked forward to eternal blessing in the presence of God, just as we do. As David says, "In Your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps. 16:11). And, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever" (Ps. 23:6). "God will redeem my soul from the power of the grave, for He shall receive me" (Ps. 49:15). Yes, the saints before the cross were saved eternally. We will meet them in the presence of God one day.
2. God's Revelation Is Progressive
But though the first point is true, there is relatively little teaching in the Old Testament about life beyond the grave. God's revelation is progressive. That is, He revealed more and more about various subjects, as time went by. It is in the New Testament that we find most of the information about our eternal future. The focus in the Old Testament was mainly on this life and this material world.
In keeping with that, the "salvation" spoken of is usually a physical deliverance of some kind, rather than being spiritual and eternal. When Moses tells the Israelites to "Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord" (Exod. 14:13) it is a deliverance from the Egyptians at the Red Sea to which he is referring.
3. No "Christians" in the Old Testament
In terms of eternal salvation, it was simply not possible for those in the Old Testament to trust in the shed blood of Christ. For one thing, Jesus had not yet died. And in any event, they knew little of what was to come. No one back then is told, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31).
For this reason, it is not really accurate to refer to the saints before the cross as "Christians" (Christ-ones). By faith, today, we are "accepted in the Beloved" (Eph. 1:6). "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation" (vs. 17). But it has only been possible to be placed into Christ by the Holy Spirit since His death and resurrection (cf. Gal. 3:26-27). Only Church Age saints can rightly be called Christians. It is better to refer to those before the cross simply as believers, or as saints (God's set-apart ones).
4. Only One Way of Salvation
So does this mean there was a different means of salvation before the cross. No. Salvation in any age is always and only "by grace, through faith" (Eph. 2:8). Grace is God's unearned, unmerited favour. And salvation is always by grace, since we are totally undeserving of it. When Adam and Eve sinned, it was grace that promised One who would crush the serpent's head (Gen. 3:15). And it was in grace that God called Abraham, and promised to make of him a great nation (Gen. 12:1-3).
When the Bible makes a distinction between Law and Grace (Rom. 6:14) it does not mean that there was no grace at all shown in the Old Testament. There was. But since the coming of Christ, we have experienced an explosion of grace. The Amplified Bible renders John 1:16 this way: "Out of His [Christ's] fullness (abundance) we all received--all had a share and we were all supplied with--one grace after another, and spiritual blessing upon spiritual blessing, and even favour upon favour, and gift heaped upon gift."
5. Faith Receives God's Gift
Likewise, salvation is always "through faith." And it is always faith in God, and faith in God's promise. But that promise, before the cross, could not be a "John 3:16" promise. Not a call to, "believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." That was something in the future. Faith had to rest on other promises, instead.
For example, the Lord promised Abraham "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:3). Today, we understand that to mean that all nations would be blessed by the salvation provided in Christ. But Abraham did not have that awareness. Even so, he believed God; he put his faith in God. "Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (Gal. 3:6).
Righteousness was credited to his heavenly account, when he believed God's Word. That is justification by faith, and it is the way all are saved (Rom. 3:24, 28). "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, ‘In you all the nations shall be blessed.' So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham" (Gal. 3:9-10).
6. Old Testament Sacrifices Were Symbolic
The sacrifices offered before the cross figure prominently in this whole matter. Each sacrifice represented the death of an innocent substitute, the innocent dying in place of the guilty. Leviticus 1:4 gives this significant instruction: "Then he [the offerer] shall put his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him."
The word atonement there simply means to cover. The sacrifices "covered" sin until the day when the Lamb of God would give His life for the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29). Then the debt could be canceled completely and forever.
7. The Sacrifices Were Offered in Faith
The one offering the sacrifice acted in faith. He believed that "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23). (That is not an exclusively New Testament concept. Cf. Gen. 2:17.) And he believed the sacrifice was dying in his place. He identified himself with it. (Putting a hand on the sacrifice indicated that.)
But it is important to add that offering a sacrifice was not a work that earned salvation. As noted above, the Old Testament believers were saved by grace (God's unearned favour) through faith, just as we are. Offering the sacrifice was an outward demonstration of inward faith in God's promise. Without faith, the sacrifice was just an empty ritual--in fact, it was an abomination to God (cf. Isa. 1:10-17).
8. Christ Fulfilled Old Testament Symbolism
Saints before the cross experienced real forgiveness, through faith. Yet we know that "it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Heb. 10:4). It needed a man to die for sinful man--and only a perfect Man could do it, or he would need to die for his own sins. That is why Christ had to come.
"God set forth [Christ Jesus] as a propitiation [to fully satisfy His justice] by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness [by punishing sin, in Christ], because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed" (Rom. 3:25). Before Calvary, God "passed over" sin, accepting the temporary means of "covering" it, through the shed blood of the sacrifice. The sacrifices pointed forward to the cross.
Those on the far side of the cross were saved by grace through faith, just as sinners are today. The death of an innocent substitute (a sacrificial animal) was accepted by the Lord, when offered in faith, in anticipation of the later fulfilment of the symbol at Calvary. There our Substitute, the Lamb of God, died for the sins of all.