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How Were Old Testament Saints Saved?

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.[ref]Gospel and Kingdom, 125-126.[/ref]

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.

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Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

16 thoughts on “How Were Old Testament Saints Saved?”

  1. Do you feel that this gives room for those who have never heard the gospel in its entirety in certain nations of the world to be saved as God reveals shadows and symbols or just OT saints in particular?

  2. Yancey Arrington

    Kort, this addresses OT saints in particular. Now, many would say you can include everyone else you mentioned in that picture as well, while others would be more cautious to do so. Either way, it’s a great question that this post doesn’t address directly. Maybe a future post. 😉

  3. How were OT people saved? The same way we are saved: by grace thru faith in Christ. If we look backward 2,000 years and believe that the historical events there can transcend time and space to have an effect on my life today, why can’t we believe that people who lived 2,000 BC can look forward in time and believe that the historical events to come can transcend time and space to have an effect on their life then? All are saved by grace thru faith in Jesus Christ. He is the (only) Way, the (only) Truth, the (only) Life.

  4. Yancey,
    I agree with you and Goldsworthy, but what was the role of the Holy Spirit in the saints of the OT. If they were dead in their trespasses and needed to be regenerated by the Spirit before receiving and embracing Christ (reformed ordo salutis), did the spirit regenerate them without dwelling within them? If so, then what led them in repentance when they sinned, and how did they become more Christlike w/o the indwelling Spirit? Did the Spirit dwell within them? If so, then why does Christ promise another helper? Why is it so dramatic for the Spirit to fall on the disciples and the 3000 at Pentecost?
    (I’m asking honestly- no pretense)

  5. James Hamilton’s “God’s Indwelling Presence” is all about that, tjb. He concludes that OT saints were regenerated, but were not permanently indwelt as NT saints are.

  6. I have tended to answer this question from Romans 4, which alludes to Genesis 15. Abraham was credited righteousness by faith. He simply trusted God’s promises. It was by God’s favour he was saved. I don’t think this is at odds with Graham’s comments for God’s promises are Yes in Christ (2 Co 1:19-20).Please be kind to share your own insights in response to what I said.

  7. The Book of Hebrews tells us all about how the Old Testament was a shadow pointing forward to the fullness of Christ. Goldsworthy gets it exactly right when he says, “… by embracing the shadow, the believer embraced the reality.”

  8. Yancy, do you believe that the Old Testament saints had the Messiah (Jesus) as the conscious object of their faith? Also spell out specifically what do you understand Goldsworthy or you to mean by “embracing the shadow.” What was the content of the Old Testament saint’s faith?

  9. WCF Longer Catechism

    Q. 34. How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?
    A. The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all foresignify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.


  10. Dallas Theological Seminary Doctrinal Statement:
    We believe that it has always been true that “without faith it is impossible to please” God (Heb. 11:6), and that the principle of faith was prevalent in the lives of all the Old Testament saints. However, we believe that it was historically impossible that they should have had as the conscious object of their faith the incarnate, crucified Son, the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and that it is evident that they did not comprehend as we do that the sacrifices depicted the person and work of Christ. We believe also that they did not understand the redemptive significance of the prophecies or types concerning the sufferings of Christ (1 Pet. 1:10–12); therefore, we believe that their faith toward God was manifested in other ways as is shown by the long record in Hebrews 11:1–40. We believe further that their faith thus manifested was counted unto them for righteousness (cf. Rom. 4:3 with Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:5–8; Heb. 11:7).

  11. Faith.
    John 20:29
    “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

    Hebrews 11:6
    And without faith it is impossible to please him

  12. Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God’s covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was “cut off” from God’s promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

    “Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

    What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

    “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

    This covenant wasn’t just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a “decision for God” when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

    If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time “decision for God” upon reaching an “Age of Accountability” in order to be saved.

    Therefore Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

    The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being “cut off” from God’s promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

    Christ said, “He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned.”

    It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    An orthodox Lutheran blog

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