How Were People Saved Before Christ?

277The “exclusivity” of Christianity is a stumbling block for many skeptics. How can Jesus be the only way to heaven? A claim such as this seems arrogant and intolerant in the pluralistic world in which we live. How can Christians believe millions of devout people from other religious traditions will be condemned just because they don’t know Jesus? Several years ago I received an email from a podcast listener who told me he believed all “good” people would eventually be “saved” just like the Old Testament saints. After all, the Bible acknowledges the salvation of devout Old Testament believers even though they lived and died long before Jesus walked on earth. If Old Testament saints can go to heaven without knowing or trusting Jesus, why can’t people today get to heaven by simply obeying the Ten Commandments?

If only that were the case. Unfortunately, the Old Testament saints were just as incapable of following the Ten Commandments as we are today. God provided them with the Law and recognized they would constantly break it. For this reason, He also provided them with an elaborate sacrificial system (to remind them of their shortcomings and the penalty for their continuing sin) and the promise of a Savior. Like us, the Old Testament saints were not saved by their adherence to the Law. They were saved by the grace of God through their faith in the Savior, even though this Savior was only a promise at the time.

They Knew About Grace
These early believers listened closely to the words of God as they were revealed by the prophets and the Scripture. As a result, they understood the nature of grace. David, for example, wrote about God’s forgiveness and grace (Psalm 32:1-5) and Paul later told us that David understood that “God reckons righteousness apart from works” (Romans 4:6-8). All the Old Testament heroes of faith recognized their good works could not save them (read Hebrews 11:13). Even Isaiah knew his “goodness” wasn’t “good enough” (Isaiah 64:6) and that animal sacrifices weren’t going to ultimately please a Holy and perfect God (Psalm 40:6).

They Knew a Messiah was Coming
With the limited knowledge of God given to them at the time, the Old Testament saints understood God would have to do something dramatic to save them. They placed their faith in the coming Savior who was described from the earliest of times. God told Adam and Eve one of their descendants would eventually defeat Satan (Genesis 3:15), and Abraham understood God would provide a sacrifice for sin, just as God provided the substitutionary sacrifice to replace Isaac (Genesis 22:8, Romans 4:3 John 8:56). Job had a similar expectation and hope for a Redeemer (Job 19:25-26), and Moses also expected and believed in the coming Messiah and the reward of Salvation (Hebrews 11:26, John 5:46). Many other Old Testament prophets and wise men spoke about the coming Savior. Enoch, for example, even talked about the second coming of the Messiah (Jude 14)! Old Testament prophets clearly described where the Messiah would be born (Micah 5:2), how He would be betrayed (Zechariah 11:12), how He would die (Isaiah 53:5), and how He would be resurrected (Psalm 16:10, Isaiah 26:19).

Old Testament saints understood their imperfect works would not unite them to a perfect God. They looked forward to the work of a flawless Messiah who would be “pierced through for our transgressions”, “crushed for our iniquities” and chastened “for our well-being” so that “by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). Those who understood and accepted the truth about grace and the coming Messiah were saved on the basis of their faith. The Savior has now appeared and His name is Jesus. We have today what the Old Testament saints only anticipated. Jesus is, as He always was, the Messiah and the only way to the Father.

J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, a Christian Case Maker, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity

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