Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Cold Case Christianity

Belief / Faith

How Were People Saved Before Christ?

How Were People Saved Before Christ
Image Credit: Pixabay from Pexels

The “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. Share on X

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.

Advertisement. Scroll to continue reading.

For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).



  1. Pingback: Cold Case Christianity: How Were Old Testament Saints Saved? | Truth2Freedom's Blog

  2. Pingback: Must I Believe In Jesus? | thinking church

  3. Pingback: How Were People Saved Before Christ? | South Dakota Apologetics

  4. Arree Smith

    January 23, 2021 at 1:38 pm

    I love reading about the Lord and his glorious salvation waiting on each and every one of us. That is, if we are dealt with by Holy Spirit. I had a Catholic mother-in-law who told me that I was going to hell because I wasn’t Catholic. Wow! No judgment. She said they get to Heaven with works. I also grew up knowing about altar calling. This is still done today, and it is the biggest lie! Just come on down front and repeat these statements and you’re saved. Uh no. No you’re not. I feel there is a rush on Bible buying and statements of, “I’m getting close to god, and I am sure I’ll go to Heaven if I do everything right.” Golden Rule type of self salvation. We DO NOT choose Him. We don’t accept Him as our Lord. He accepts us!!! I am not scriptured or well versed. I’m the lowest of sinners. But I know where I’m going. Make your calling and election sure. By reading articles or stories about salvation, I’m doing just that.

    • Arree Smith

      January 23, 2021 at 1:46 pm

      I also want to add that I hungered and thirsted for something along the time of four years or so. I wasn’t complete and I listened to old tapes from church. “Don’t you know He died for YOU?” For me!!! Nobody else but me. Salvation is immediately interrupted by Satan telling you that you’re not saved. You are if the Lord says so. Don’t give up. He doesn’t start a good work then leave you. Pray for unsaved family as well. May 4, 1999 was my day. I was so miserable without Him and now everything happens as it should. Amazing Grace!!!

  5. Jennifer Meaders

    March 8, 2021 at 7:24 am

    Thank you. This is helpful. I still have the question of how were people (that were not Jewish) saved before Christ came? People from all the other nations of the earth who didn’t know Jehovah or His promises?

    • Anthony Chevarella

      October 5, 2021 at 6:30 pm

      but they knew that God would provide a sacrifice for them too. Abraham,Isaac,& Jacob is a type of trinity head that all people recognized. Abraham (Father)Isaac(child of the promise) & the Holy Spirit is represented in the transformation of Jacob having his name changed to Israel by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.God asked Abraham to sacrifice the child of promise after fulfilling his promise to Abram & Sarai that they would have a child near the age of 100. Abram believed & trusted God when He asked him to sacrifice the child and this was accounted to him as righteousness.This made Abram into Abraham,Sarai into Sarah,and Jacob into Israel and thus the modern nation of Israel would be established through these 3 Patriarch’s. The Gentiles were witnessess to this type of faith and were also included in these promises to Abraham and his seed, meaning spiritual seed who came to God as God required. Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins and it was and is by faith that all have been saved throughout history, and not by works.If you believe God and His Word and trust in His way of saving the world, then you shall be saved. Abraham way of salvation was introduced 430 years before Moses came along and the Law was given to show mankind how sinful and helpless they were & are without God’s mercy.The Jews and the Jewish nation are a result of God trusting them with the way of showing the rest of the Gentile world the same way of salvation that He provided for them!!!……Hope this helped a little

  6. Craig Giddens

    November 10, 2021 at 10:42 am

    What specifically did those before Christ came and died (and rose) believe? They had a knowledge of God and there was revelation given progressively. Those before the flood probably had knowledge of God passed down from Adam. Abraham was given revelation that Noah didn’t know of. Moses was given revelation that Abraham didn’t know. David and then the Prophets were given revelation not previously known. But what exactly did those folks believe? Did they understand passages like Isaiah 53 concerning the suffering servant. Were they expecting the Messiah to die for them? If so, why did Jesus’ disciples who walked with Him for 3 years not understand Jesus when He told them He was going to die and rise again. They never got it until after the resurrection.

  7. AJ Derxsen

    October 14, 2022 at 2:06 pm

    Thank you for this article, Mr. Wallace! This is true of the OT Jewish saints – but it doesn’t cover the larger issue.

    (1) How were Melchizedek and his people saved?

    (2) Is there any Biblical reason there can’t be other “Melchizedeks” out there, either in the past or today?

    (3) What became of Jews who, before the redemptive work of Christ, but living at the same time of his first coming, believed what you’ve described above – but lived far away from Judea? As soon as the Gospel went into effect, were they suddenly cut off from salvation just because they hadn’t heard the latest news in redemptive history?

    Thank you,
    AJ Derxsen

  8. Brayden

    November 17, 2022 at 10:54 am

    So this is what confuses me tho, so different people were sent all across the world after Babylon, so if different people around the world have not interacted with God or was born into other Gods, how would they have been saved?

  9. Jason

    April 6, 2023 at 11:35 am

    Was there a way for people from places far from the Middle East – those who wouldn’t have any knowledge of the Old Testament – to know about God? Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

Christian Case Making

I’ve been writing recently about jury selection. If you are interested in making a case for what you believe as a Christian, you probably...

Christian Case Making

I’ve written previously about the importance of jury selection in any criminal trial. The secret of our success in cold case investigations and prosecutions...

Christian Case Making

As a cold-case detective and part of a three generation law enforcement family, I’ve got a secret I’d like to share with you: the...


In this podcast, J. Warner talks about the habit many of us exercise when speaking Christianese, the distinctive (and often confusing) language of the...