Were people saved in different ways at different times throughout history?

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Some people have read some parts of the New Testament as teaching that Old Testament people were saved in one way, and New Testament people were saved in another way. Sometimes they are taught, or come to believe, that Old Testament people were saved by doing their best at keeping the commands of God that were given to Moses at Mount Sinai, whereas New Testament people are saved by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ. That's really a serious mistake. It's a serious error. It is true that if Adam had not have sinned in the Garden, Adam and Eve could have been declared right with God. They wouldn't have needed salvation, per se, because there was nothing to be rescued from, but they would have been declared right with God forever on the basis of their own obedience. But once sin entered the picture in Genesis 3, it's utterly impossible for any fallen, sinful descendant of Adam — and that's all of us; the Lord Jesus is the exception, not fallen and not sinful — but all of us, it's utterly impossible for us to ever commend ourselves into the presence of God on the basis of our obedience, so, our best efforts at obedience. That is taught so clearly all the way through the Old Testament Scriptures, and it's taught so clearly in the New Testament as well.

Yes, it is true that God disciplined Israel at times for their disobedience. In fact, even expelling them from the Land of Promise because they had not adequately kept the covenant. But remember that also, embedded in the covenant with Moses was the provision for the atonement of sins. The sacrificial system, right at the heart of everything which of course goes way, way further back than that. The apostle Paul also speaks very directly to this in Galatians where he's encountering some who are teaching Galatian Gentile Christians that, having believed in Jesus, they now need to reassure their hearts that they are full-fledged, first-class members of the covenant people by keeping all the commands of the Law. And Paul points specifically to the fact that the covenant made with Abraham was given long before the Law given to Moses for Israel on Mount Sinai 430 years earlier. Paul says, you know, even with human arrangements like this, a legal arrangement like this, that new conditions cannot be added later on. And God made a covenant with Abraham that he would declare Abraham and his children right, as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to Abraham through righteousness. That's the way of rescue for sinful people now, to look away from ourselves, to look away from our obedience, or efforts at obedience, and to look to Christ the one who perfectly obeyed. Moses in no way added any condition to that when God gave the law through Moses.

And interestingly in Romans, in the tenth chapter, Paul will quote Moses as announcing that principle that those who keep the Law could be right with the Law if there were such a person. He's already said elsewhere that that's impossible, but then he immediately goes on also to quote from the books of Moses saying, the righteousness of faith says to us, we don't need to rely on our own achievements to go up to heaven to bring Christ down, to go into hades to bring Christ up. God has already sent Christ from heaven to be our Redeemer. God has already brought Christ up from the dead. And the way of salvation, Moses teaches us, is the way of confessing with our mouth "Jesus is Lord" and believing in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead. One way of salvation, from the Garden of Eden, after the Fall, to the consummation of all things, it's resting and trusting in Jesus Christ, and him alone.

Answer by Dr. Dennis E. Johnson

Dr. Dennis E. Johnson is Academic Dean and Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California.