Salvation in the Old Testament

Q: How were people saved in the Old Testament times since they lived before the coming of Jesus Christ?

The short answer is, “The same way we’re saved today – by faith.”

Just look at the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, where the writer explains how “the people of old received their commendation.” He doesn’t say that they were made holy by their circumcision, their fastidious attention to the dietary rules, their response to demands of the festival calendar, or the quality of the animals they brought to the temple for sacrifice. Indeed, in chapter ten, he’s already said that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Those were merely ceremonies pointing to the real thing to come, Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice on the cross.

As chapter eleven demonstrates in stirring detail, such ancients as Abel, Enoch, and Noah distinguished themselves by their trust in God’s revelation of Himself. In Noah’s case, this meant building an ark on dry land in anticipation of a flood no one else expected. And then came Abraham, who, in his old age, with a supposedly barren wife, received a promise from God that all the world would be blessed through his offspring. He didn’t know Jesus by name, or the details of His saving work, but he and others in his line were looking forward to wonderful things to come, “seeing” and “greeting” them “from afar.”

The big test of Abraham’s faith came when God told him to sacrifice Isaac, his only hope of a legacy. Abraham passed that trial with flying colors, confident that if God let him follow through with the killing, He would then raise Isaac from the dead, and make sure that he in turn would have children of his own, leading up to the Promised One. (Happy to say, the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham just short of sacrifice, when it was clear the old man was willing to do it.)

That same chapter eleven gives more good examples of faith in action: Moses walked away from the safety and comfort of Pharaoh’s court; the Israelites marched around the doomed city of Jericho according to God’s instructions; and many unnamed people of God went to prison for their stand. But the point is not that we’re saved by walking away from luxury, by making public displays of piety, or suffering abuse by those who hate God. The point is rather the disposition of souls toward what God shows us, our trust in what He has disclosed and our willing submission to His leadership.  As Paul says in Romans 2:29, it’s essentially a matter of the heart, not the physical externals. And in Romans chapter 4, he uses Abraham as the perfect example of one whose “faith was counted . . . as righteousness.”

Today, that certainly means that we accept Christ as Savior and Lord. We receive His death on the cross as the payment of our sin debt and His resurrection as guarantee that He has the power to rescue us from the grave and take us to heaven. In a sense, we’re looking back to Calvary, while the Old Testament saints were looking forward to Calvary (and the centurion in Matthew 27:24 was looking right at Calvary, where he said, “Truly this was the Son of God”). In other words, there’s always been one plan of salvation, trust in God’s provision in Jesus, whether we’re anticipating Him imperfectly in Old Testament days, observing Him as earthly contemporaries in the first century A.D., or reflecting on Him (as He is revealed in the New Testament) in the 21st century. It’s been faith in Jesus, to the extent that God has revealed Him, from first to last.

About Mark Coppenger

Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, director of the Seminary's Nashville extension, and managing editor of Kairos Journal. He received his doctorate from Vanderbilt University. He has published several books and has contributed to such publications as Teaching Philosophy, Touchstone, American Spectator Online, and USA Today.