It’s a fair question: How were Israelites saved in the Old Testament? The rationale behind the question mostly stems from the fact that we, as New Testament believers, can look back at the Person and Work of Jesus for our salvation. However, what if you lived during a time when Jesus hadn’t arrived, namely, the period of the Old Testament? Were you saved by your obedience to the Law? Did God just give everyone a “free pass” until Christ arrived? How did salvation work for those who were still waiting for the gospel of Jesus?
One of my favorite responses to this question is from Old Testament and Biblical Theology scholar Graeme Goldsworthy. In his must-read work Gospel and Kingdom he writes:
From man’s point of view we see the Scriptures unfold a step-by-step process until the gospel is reached as the goal. But from God’s point of view we know that the coming of Christ to live and to die for sinners was the pre-determined factor even before God made the world. We must not think of God trying first one plan and then another until he came up with the perfect way of salvation. The gospel was pre-ordained so that at the exact and perfect time God sent forth his Son into the world.
In the meantime, until that perfect ‘fulness of time’ should be reached, God graciously provided a progressive revelation of the Christ event. These prefigurements of the gospel had two purposes. First, this progressive revelation led man gently to the full light of truth. Secondly, it provided the means whereby the Old Testament believer embraced the gospel before it was fully revealed. The Old Testament believer who believed the promises of God concerning the shadow was thus enabled to grasp the reality. It was by Christ that the saints of Israel were saved, for such is the unity of the successive stages of revelation that, by embracing the shadow, the believer embraced the reality. Only in this way can we account for the ‘unity expressions’ of the New Testament which speak of Old Testament believers as hearing the gospel, seeing Christ, or hoping for a heavenly Kingdom. 1
Goldsworthy’s answer is one worth committing to memory. How were Old Testament saints saved? By Christ! But how could Christ save those who lived centuries before the Cross? Because God gave his people types, symbols, and experiences that progressively pointed to the arrival of Christ. They were intentionally given the shadow of things which one day would blossom into reality. And so, salvation came to Old Testament individuals who embraced the “shadow” of the One we, as New Testament believers, now see clearly in the light.
- Gospel and Kingdom, 125-126. ↩