How Were Jews Saved in the Old Testament?
by John Hendryx

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter,
choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,
considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward. Heb 11:24-26

Question: Between the fall of Adam and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, how were people's sins atoned for? Was there true salvation as we know it in NT times? Also, if the Law doesn't save, how did it 'work' for OT believers? Were they trusting in Messiah and didn't know it? I'm confused by all this. Any clarification you might have would be great. Thank you for your time....


Thank you for your excellent question.

In both eras God's people were saved by grace alone. God is holy, and thus, fallen humanity was never saved by observing the Law. In both the Old and New Testament era God's standard for us remains the same: perfect righteousness, so at all times we would have to keep the Law perfectly to earn our own redemption and win God's acceptance. The Law is therefore, not meant to save but rather strip us of all hope of looking to self for salvation, a tutor to lead us to Christ (Gal 3:24) for it condemns each of us exposing the deep roots of our sinful nature and thus our desperate need for a Savior. But Christ alone fulfilled all righteousness (Matt 3:15), a sinless savior who died and counts His people free from the condemnation of the Law.

"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." Rom 3:19-20

"But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." Gal 3:22

The same absolute standard of righteousness was just as true under the Old Covenant as it is now. Dispensationalism, a recent system of theology which has been popular for the last century or so, has taken the Bible, and rather than seeing it as an integrated whole (a unified unfolding of redemptive history), has taught the Scripture as if God has different plans and different futures for the peoples in the various eras of history. But this is clearly not the case. God has one covenant of grace, which was promised right after the fall in Genesis 3:15 proclaiming that the seed of the woman would crush the seed of the serpent.

This same promise of blessing was again specifically enacted through Abraham and his seed (Gen 12, 15, 17) which includes people from all nations (Gen 12:3). God established His covenant with Him, not based on anything He saw in him since Abraham and his family are recorded as being idolaters. The promise was based instead on God's love and mercy alone. God said to Israel, "you will be my people and I will be your God" which is covenant language. From the beginning God reveals Himself as establishing a covenant with particular people of His choosing. We are, thus, part of a religion of redemption, i.e. one which promises salvation from our predicament as sinners by the payment of a price. This is in contrast to religions of law, which look to man to bring about this desirable state of affairs by his own efforts or choices. God bringing up the Israelites up out of the bondage of Egypt in the Exodus is a beautiful picture of our release from our bondage from sin. The people of Israel could not just come out if they so chose. No, it took the supernatural exertion of God to bring them out. Likewise our bondage to sin must be broken by God's supernatural work of regeneration which makes us willing since the desire to please God springs from a new heart.

If you recall, just before Moses read the Ten Commandments, He reminds them of God's covenant with them. "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt." The relationship is established on His love for Abraham and an act of redemption which He has already accomplished on their behalf. Now, as a result, He calls them together to give them His Law. Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews was chosen by God and the promise made prior to his being circumcized. This covenant of grace insured his spiritual seed of their part in the work of redemption to be accomplished in the Messiah. Furthermore, when the Law was established with Moses and the Israelites, it included the sacrifices of sheep and oxen to daily remind them of sin. All of them, from young to old, needed their sins atoned for. The author of Hebrews tells us that the blood of sheep and bulls did not take away their sin. That is why the sacrifices had to be constantly repeated - to show them that they were inadequate in themselves.What was its purpose then? These sacrifices only pointed toward the once for all final sacrifice to come, the Lamb without blemish or defect. They were but shadows, types of the substance and reality to come. The Jews of the Old Testament, then, were actually trusting in the Messiah and His work even though many of the details remained hidden from them. Atonement is a constant theme to be found everywhere in the Old Testament. But when Jesus came their hope of the ages was finally fulfilled. The long promised Messiah, the lamb who was to take away the sins of the world ... and historically that is why God removed the Temple in Jerusalem shortly after (70 A.D.) His resurrection made it's sacrifices of atonement no longer necessary. Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice was once for all, covering the sins of His people for all time. And the following verse gives us an indication of the trans-historical nature of His sacrifice:

"... to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world." Revelation 13:8
(also see John 6:39; Hebrews 13:20)

As the verse indicates, there is a clear element of timelessness in Christ's death, Therefore, the forgiveness purchased by Christ for His people at his death was already efficacious to the saints which existed prior to his coming. Both Moses and Elijah also considered his death to be of great personal importance as this was their main topic of conversation when they visited him at the transfiguration:

"And behold, two men were talking with Him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem." Luke 9:30, 31

Again in the New Testament Paul indicates that Abraham had the gospel preached to him:

"The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "[Gen 12:3] ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU." Galatians 3:8 (emphasis mine)

Although much of the gospel perhaps remained a mystery to the Jews, they saw it from afar (Heb 11) and evidently received enough for the Holy Spirit to apply toward their regeneration, apart from works of the Law. Even Jesus in the Gospel of John says "Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad." John 8:56

Aparently the Spiritual Jews of the first century deeply understood the implications and necessity of a Messiah for when Jesus is presented in the temple there was a man called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel so that when he saw Jesus he took him in his arms and praised God, saying:

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."(Luke 2:29-32)

He then said: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too." With these things in mind we begin to view redemptive history like the blossoming of a flower, an organic unfolding - from the bud slowly opening to full blossom. Truth is always truth but their is an flowering of redemption from infancy to maturity as it is revealed in history. Instead of viewing the Old Testament as a completely seperate dispensation we now see that it was a time in revelation when we were but children having the law to discipline us but when the fulness of time came the child no longer needs guardians:

"But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor....he [a child] is under guardians and managers until the date set by the father. So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons."
(Gal 3:25; 4:3-5)

It was hazy and becomes more clear. Look as the promise to Abraham - the Gentiles are promised to be a part of his seed one day. Is says, "ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU" And in Galatians we see the fulfillment of this:

" Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."Gal 3:14

"And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's descendants, heirs according to promise." Gal 3:29

This means that the church did not start at Pentecost, but rather consists of the whole number of the elect, which were purchased for God with Christ's blood from [Dan 3:4; 5:19; Rev 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15] every tribe and tongue and people and nation. This includes all true believers for all time, both believers in the New Testament age and believers in the Old Testament age as well. Romans 11 describes our (N.T. Saints) relationship with Israel as organic, likening it to tree branches being grafted in but having the same root. We all sprung from the same spiritual seed, Christ being the root, and the eternal covenant made with the Father (John 6:37,39, 44, 63-65; 17:9) carried out in history through Abraham and fulfilled in Christ. The progressive unfolding nature of the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David laid the covenantal groundwork for the culmination of God's redemptive work in His new covenant in Christ. The nation of Israel shares a primary role in God's self-revelation in redemptive history. It is the revelation unfolding through the Old Testament that provides the crucial framework for understanding God's complete self-revelation through Jesus Christ.

Pentecost, was the eschatological hope of the Jews fulfilled where the Spirit is poured out on both Jew and Gentile. The dividing wall and barrier of hostility was broken down ... but God did not have a different plan or way of saving people in Old and New Testaments. It has always been by grace alone than no man may boast. There has always been the concept of a penal substitution and redemption for sinners. With all the confusion introduced by poor exegesis in recent times we merely need to simply go back to the Scriptures an understand that their true nature is one of organic unity. It was not as if a holy God lowered His standard for the people of the Old Testament. One sin would forever damn them, unless, like us, God has mercy on them and provides redemption for them. There was no time when man could attain heaven by his own efforts, except, of course, for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself who alone fulfilled the covenant from our side. He sinlessly obeyed God's holy Law and God was well pleased with Him. God looks at Him and counts us free. He is our righteousness as God's elect are attributed Christ's satisfaction by faith.Where Adam failed to keep God's covenant, Jesus succeeded. All glory to God alone for our redemption for which we could not or would not lift a finger for on our own. Our only hope is in the Messiah who crushed the head of the serpent, which was promised after the fall.

To conclude, Old Testament saints were clearly saved the same way the New Testament saints were, by grace alone, through faith alone, in to person and work of Christ alone, as revealed in the Scriptures alone, to the glory of God alone. .

For what does the Scripture say? "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing upon the man to whom God reckons righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. "Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account" (Rom. 4:3-8).

All saints of all time have their hope in Him alone for their redemption. Christ is the center of history and in this light, we should read and interpret both Old and New Testaments.