Q&A: Salvation before Christ

Salvation before Christ

Question

How were people saved in the Old Testament? I know it was by faith, but faith in what (e.g. God the Father, a coming savior)? As we are now saved by faith in Jesus, it appears different standards applied in the Old testament since I would think few people in the Old Testament fully understood the coming Savior.

Answer

Salvation in the Old Testament was, of course, according to the same gospel that we know today (cf. Gal. 3:8), though it was revealed less clearly. It was by grace through faith, apart from personal merit. Saving faith in the Old Testament, like saving faith in the New Testament, was faith in God himself. Most basically, it is generally presented as a belief that God exists, in submission to God especially in the form of believing that what God says is true (e.g. Gen. 15:6), and in trust in God as Savior. In the Old Testament, the idea of God as Savior did not appear in the fullness of the revelation we have in the New Testament, where we learn of God the Son as Savior. But this does not detract from the fact that in the Old Testament God is consistently presented as Savior.

The specific content of saving faith was different at different points in time because, as time went on, God said more things. The greater the revelation God had given at any point in time, the more he expected people to believe. But it was not that people had to know and to believe everything God had ever said. Even today we don't teach that a person must memorize the Bible in order to be saved. The point was that they believed that God was who he said he was (as far as they knew it), that they loved him, and that they trusted him to take care of them (especially by forgiving, saving, blessing, etc.). For example, Abraham believed God when God said he would bless Abraham, and Abraham was justified on this basis. We aren't told that Abraham understood all the theological arguments regarding the means of salvation, or that he understood the relationship of faith to works, or even that he understood that he was justified on the basis of faith alone. We are told only that he believed God's promise to bless him.

Ultimately, the Bible never tells us the absolute minimum content of knowledge required for salvation, whether in the New Testament or the Old. Perhaps one reason for this is that faith itself is simply a means by which God saves us -- it is not the reason that God saves us. Faith is like a rope that God uses to lift us out of a well. It is not God's power; it is not God's motivation. It is simply God's tool. I imagine that no two people probably have precisely the same faith content: we disagree on many things, and even when we agree we no doubt understand the concepts somewhat differently. Fortunately, our faith does not determine whether or not God saves us -- God determines that all by himself. If he wants to save us, he gives us a measure of faith as the means by which he applies grace to us. The content of our faith merely reveals whether or not God has been gracious to us.

In a very important sense, the primary referent of our faith must be the object of our faith, namely God himself, the one in whom we have faith, rather than the content of our faith. This is in no way to depreciate the imporance of recognizing all three aspects of faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. It is just to emphasize that we need knowledge of a person, not just of facts; we assent by agreeing with a person; and we trust in the truth of the gospel, but not apart from trusting the God whose gospel it is. As Calvin put it, faith is more than a "common assent to gospel history" -- nothing is worth knowing except Christ (Institutes 3.2.1).

Now, none of this is to suggest that we can be saved apart from faith that includes Christ in its content: the person who has never received Christ will not be saved. (Of course, God can work miracles, and can give faith in the gospel to whom he wishes, even apart from the normal means of preaching.) But it is Christ's divinity we worship and trust, which was present and revealed in the Old Testament as in the New, even if not with the clearer distinctions between the persons of the Godhead that we find in the New Testament.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.