Salvation Before the Savior?

For Sean…

If Jesus is the way to God, how did people before Jesus come to God?  What is the way of salvation (the gospel) in the Old Testament?  I’ve been asked this one many times.  It seems unfair of God to change the rules of the game at halftime.  It seems even more unfair for him to expect people to hear of and respond to a person who would not live for thousands of years.  

Here’s how Scripture unfolds the wonderful unity of the message of salvation.

1.  Let’s start with a reaffirmation:  Jesus Christ is the only Savior, the ONE mediator between God and mankind.  “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5, NKJV).  We could not cross the chasm between us and God without him and all that he accomplished on Calvary’s Cross.  I hope and pray that the pastors in America would go back to the Cross as a central theme.  One of my favorite retired preachers, a church planter, world traveller, and evangelist named Paul Edwardson, used to tell me… “Preach your sermon, and then run to the Cross.”  He did that, and tens of thousands came to Christ through him.  The Cross/Resurrection complex is the high point in Jesus’ story, and it is the precise saving work of Christ (a.k.a., his blood, his death, his sacrifice, his crucifixion:  “but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NKJV).)

2. The Cross was in the intention of God, planned from before the worlds were made.  “All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, NKJV). Calvary was not an afterthought.  It was a forethought.  And since Jesus was the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world, it didn’t matter where in history the event of the Cross happened.  All that mattered was that it happened, not when.  Christ could have died at the beginning of history, the end of history, or in the middle (which he apparently did).  It didn’t matter because…

3.  God has always treated the human race on the basis of the Cross of Christ… that is, as if the Cross had already happened.  In the mind of God, it was a “done deal” before time began.  So God could forgive sins on the basis of the Cross before the Cross ever happened.  God could enter into a covenant relationship on the basis of the shed blood of Christ before Christ shed his blood.  God could pour out blessings, minister comfort, give his Spirit, and draw near to the brokenhearted before one nail was driven into the hands and feet of Christ.  Calvary has always been the basis of God’s relationship with humankind, ever since the first couple sinned.  And so, all mankind was redeemed, not by human endeavor or cost, “but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you” (1 Peter 1:19, 20, NKJV).  And, “just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love” (Ephesians 1:4, NKJV).  

But that doesn’t really answer the question, does it.  So far, I’ve described simply a theological basis for salvation in Christ alone.  That there is one way to God.  Theologians divide the gospel into two halves:  the objective facts of the gospel, and the subjective response to the gospel.  Or “Redemption accomplished,” all that Christ did on our behalf, and “Redemption Applied,” all that we must do to receive the benefits Jesus made available.  

So what about the application of redemption?  What must we do?  Are there two gospels?  A gospel of works before Jesus and a gospel of grace/faith after Jesus?

Nope.  Just one.  The everlasting gospel:  “Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth–to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6, NKJV).

I’ll save “Redemption applied” for the next post.  What did people hear and respond to in order to be saved in that long era before Jesus?


4 thoughts on “Salvation Before the Savior?

  1. As I view salvation via. Jesus I am perplexed, as are many, by God’s means of salvation before the cross. Most Christians do think salvation prior to Jesus was attained by the law & not abiding in God, this however, is not the case. Since looking into Judaism I have discovered that resting upon your own merits is not the aim of Torah & it is this perplexing issue that has helped me love God even more, although it still confuses me.

    Because God lives outside of time (as we see it) he is able to view all mankind through the cross even though that event, in our timeline, had not occurred?

    Thanks Bill, this is excellent & I look forward to more.

  2. I would like to join the conversation with this note (do you agree or disagree with it and why?):

    the New Testament understanding of the Old Testament characters who were deemed righteous by God was based on their faith, not on the cross. God credited Abraham’s faith as righteousness. But when reading the Scriptures as a whole, we see that God predestined the church and the cross, so that, in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, God was in fact changing the rules, because his chosen people was repeatedly failing to fulfill the Law. As a result, God gave a new covenant to replace the former covenant, which prepared the way for Christ.

  3. Bill…

    Awesome question!

    You words convict me — and they are correct! — that the death of Jesus is the BASIS of salvation for all peoples, past (incl. Old Testament), present & future. That fact is unchangeable. It has always been true.

    The MEANS of salvation in every age is also the SAME, i.e., faith. For example, “Abraham believed God, and that was credited to him as righteousness…” (Genesis 15:6). The Apostle Paul plays on that theme in Romans (and Galatians) by emphasizing Habakkuk 2:4, “The just will live by faith.”

    Thus, “the basis of salvation is always the death of Christ; the means is always faith; the object is always God (although man’s understanding of God before and after the Incarnation is obviously different); but the content of faith depends on the particular revelation God was pleased to give at a certain time” C.C. Ryrie, “Dispensationalism (Chicago: Moody, 1995), 121.

    In Hebrews 11, there is a whole list of Old Testament characters whose salvation had its means of faith with God as the object. It’s almost humorous, but Jacob leaned on his staff (v.21) to bless the two children of Joseph. It is not recorded as such in the OId Testament, but the point was that there was a result, or out”work”ing to the act of faith of Jacob. Abraham got circumcised as an out”work”ing of his faith. It is unfortunate that many interpreters (most notably the pharisees) had turned it around, and placed the cart before the horse, i.e., Jewish birth was the basis, and circumcision was the means of salvation, etc.

    The Law. What does the Mosaic Law have to do with this?

    The Law came when the Shekinah Glory of God tabernacled among men (i.e., after the Exodus). As the head of state of the Jewish theocracy, the presence of the Shekinah Glory commanded holiness (even to the prohibition of the admixture of wool and cotton in clothing!), however, this same Law did not command love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, faithfullness, (Galatians 5:23). The Jewish theocracy was the Kingdom of God on earth, however, there was one BIG problem.

    Despite the requirements of the Law, the “Inner Mess” was still at work, and so the complete fulfillment of the Kingdom of God would require a “New Covenant” where the heart was “circumcised,” and the Spirit of God indwelled men. Thus the believer would “love” and thus fulfill the law. ERGO, Jesus and the First Advent. We are commanded to “walk in the spirit” because now we have the Spirit of God within us to love, and thus “to fulfill the Law.”

    But the Shekinah Glory that tabernacled among men (see John 1:14) no longer is on earth. (We still await the Second Advent.) Hebrews 2:8 says, “But we do not see all things now subjected to him”…

    Enough said (getting too verbose). I’ll stop here. I look forward to the next posting.


  4. Bill, Thanks for the teaching. Are you saying that OT characters’ salvation depended on their faith in God’s Promise? Their understanding of the The Promise varied with their circumstances, and the revelation given to them. They understood that the sacrificial system was an object lesson about God’s character and Promise, and that it was never the means of salvation. Rather, God held them accountable for faith in His Promise.

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