This is one of those odd questions that you’re going to encounter on your spiritual journey. In the New Testament, everything changes suddenly. Peter is sleeping on a roof and has a vision of unclean animals being lowered for him to eat. In Acts 15 there’s a Jerusalem council to discuss what gentile converts need to do now to be part of the church. Nothing in Matthew seems to be the same as in Malachi. Thus, the natural question emerges. How were people saved in the Old Testament?
In this video, Steven Lawson takes a crack at answering the question. His answer is very simple and concise. People were saved in the Old Testament the same way that people are saved in the New Testament. I agree. However, he summarizes the process in the following way.
By grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.Steven Lawson
Now this answer is highly problematic. If we are truly saved by grace alone, then we don’t need faith. Alone, after all, means alone. So let me try to clean it up a little for him by saying what he appears to mean. We are saved by God’s grace alone, and we receive that grace by faith in Jesus alone. No additional works, sacrifices, or sacraments are required. I believe this is what he is trying to say here.
Is this how people were saved in the Old Testament?
There’s an obvious problem that presents itself here. Outside of a New Testament reference to Abraham, who saw Jesus day and was glad, there’s nothing to substantiate the notion that anyone in the Old Testament was even aware of a coming person named Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, this reference doesn’t say that “Abraham saw my day and was saved”. In fact, as even this video points out, the Bible does tell us how Abraham was declared righteous. He “believed God”, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Here we see a conflict in the argument presented by Steven Lawson. However, there’s an even bigger issue for me personally. Here we are confronted by a Christian doctrine called “scriptural sufficiency”. Ligonier Ministries, the folks who put out this video, describe scriptural sufficiency as follows.
To say that Scripture is sufficient is to say that the Bible contains all that we need for determining what we must believe and how we are to live before God. Scripture must be interpreted if we are to understand what we are to believe and how we are to act, but the sufficiency of Scripture indicates that we need no other source of special revelation for faith and life in addition to the Bible.Ligonier Ministries
In John Frame’s Systematic Theology, he explains that scriptural sufficiency means that the scriptures given to any people at any point in time were sufficient for their salvation. However, both of these things cannot be true at the same time. Nowhere in Torah are we told that salvation is by faith in Jesus alone. Therefore, either people in the time of Moses were not saved by faith in Jesus alone, or the scriptures given to them were insufficient for their salvation since they didn’t tell them this fact.
How people were saved in the Old Testament.
I agree with the first two parts of Steven Lawson’s assertion. People were saved by grace alone, and they received this grace by faith alone. However, they were not saved by placing their faith in anyone other than the one true God. Hence, Abraham believed God, and this belief (not works) was credited to his account as righteousness. This is a clear, unambiguous teaching. Moreover, Ezekiel 18:20 makes it perfectly clear that Tanakh did not teach a message of substitutionary atonement.
The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.Ezekiel 18:20
Therefore, in my opinion, one must draw one of the following conclusions.
- Salvation was not obtained the same way in the Old and New Testament.
- If salvation was obtained the same way, it wasn’t through the death of Jesus, since they didn’t know about this in Old Testament times.
- Old Testament scriptures weren’t sufficient to tell Old Testament people how to be saved. They needed some other additional source to be saved that is no longer available to us today.
For me personally, the solution is simple. People today are made right with God the same way that people then were made right with God. We believe God, and this faith is credited to us as righteousness. We then try to do what God wants us to because we believe him, not in an attempt to achieve our own salvation through works. We are indeed saved by grace alone. Not grace plus a sacrifice, be it one we offer up, or one offered up on our behalf. After all, grace alone should mean just that. Grace alone.