How Were People Saved in the Old Testament?

The New Testament’s rejection of earning God’s favor by works and its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith (e.g., Eph 2:8–9; Gal 2:16; Rom 4:1–12) has led many people to presume that the Old Testament teaches that people could merit salvation [in the Old Testament] by obeying the Mosaic law. However, this is not the case.

The problem of sin in the Old Testament

Old Testament theology, with its complex sacrificial system, had a firm grasp of the problem of sin, which was variously defined as being ritually impure or transgressing God’s moral law. As members of a stable nation trying to walk with their God, literally not a day could pass in the normal course of Israel’s life when they were not reminded that they were imperfect and impure in the sight of a holy God. Nothing would create the idea that human goodness could earn God’s pleasure.

However, since living according to God’s law and maintaining the purity of sacrificial worship required great human effort, Israelites also knew that salvation was not a purely passive status. The issue is not that human effort was not part of salvation. It would have been foreign to the Israelite to think that faith was not a fundamental requirement for salvation or that an individual’s own works resulted in God owing salvation to anyone.

A tree is known by its fruit

Therefore, in its framing, Old Testament salvation was the same as New Testament salvation. In the New Testament, works were essential to salvation (Jas 2:14–26) but they were never the meritorious cause of salvation; God owed salvation to no one on the basis of works. This is not contrary to Paul’s assertion that no one was justified by works. James and Paul could thus be fused this way: “For by grace are you saved through faith, which without works is dead” (Eph 2:8; Jas 2:17). No element can be eliminated.

Jesus said that a tree (and hence a believer) was known by its fruit (Matt 12:33). If an individual does not have works (“fruit”), there is no evidence of salvation. The presence of works is essential for calling someone a believer. But works do not put God in the position of owing salvation. Salvation comes by faith in Christ (its object), which produces works. Both must be present. Old Testament salvation can be framed the same way, though the object of faith differs.

Faith and obedience

With respect to the Old Testament Israelite, faith was essential to standing in right relationship to God. The Israelite had to believe that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was the true God, superior to all other gods. This would produce fruit in the form of loyal worship of only Yahweh and no other god. Old Testament Israelites also had to believe that Yahweh had come to their forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and made a covenant with them that made them his exclusive people.

This covenant included specific promises to be believed by faith. Faith in the divine origin of the covenant and its promises involved obedience. The language of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1–3; 15:1–6) was frequently repeated in connection with obedience to God (e.g., Gen 17:1–6; 22:18; 26:5). The patriarchs could not have disobeyed God’s commands by rejecting circumcision, refusing to go where God commanded, and rejecting sacrifice, and still received God’s blessing. The children of the patriarchs also had to believe that the God who delivered them from Egypt was the same God of their forefathers.

That same God gave Israel the law to distinguish them as his unique possession of humanity on Earth (e.g., Exod 20–23; Lev 10–11). An Israelite who believed he was a child of the God of Sinai produced fruit by obeying the law. The law of Sinai was connected to the promises given to Abraham (Lev 26). Faith in Yahweh and loyalty to Yahweh were both part of salvation (right relationship to God) in the Old Testament. Individuals could not be rightly-related to God by means of only one.

In all this, Israelites could not do the works of the law and then presume God owed them salvation. God was in relationship with Israel because he chose to be in that relationship—he chose this before obedience was any issue. God extended grace by calling Abraham; Abraham believed, and then Abraham showed that belief by obedience (Rom 4).

An extension of God’s grace

The concept “circumcision of the heart” is telling in regard to the balance of faith and works. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant. Since performing it required human activity, it could be thought of as a good work. God desired obedience—the submission of one’s will—on this matter. “Circumcision of the heart” speaks of a heart that believes, not a work. It is a heart submitted to God, not merely the will. A circumcised heart was a believing heart, and it was essential for right relationship to God (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 31:33; 32:39, 40; Ezek 11:19; 36:26, 27).

In the Old Testament law and the sacrificial system, failure was inevitable; fellowship with God would inevitably be broken. Moreover, humans were impure by nature and unable to approach the perfect divine presence. The book of Leviticus indicates that people could purge (“atone for”) the impurity caused by sin and transgression through sacrifice, which resulted in forgiveness (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; Num 15:25–28).

Through his grace

But they did not earn forgiveness; God provided the entire means of forgiveness—the sacrificial system—through his grace. God was not forced to provide a means of atonement or reveal what he would accept for atonement. The means of restoring fellowship with God was an extension of God’s grace.

This article is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.

Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.

His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.

He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.

Original Languages Keyboard Selector Added to Search

If you work in the original languages of Hebrew and Greek then you may very well appreciate the NEW keyboard selector added to the Search panel in the recent Logos 8.8 update. [Read more…]

Grant Osborne on the Sermon Series Churches Need Most

This excerpt is adapted from James: Verse by Verse by Grant R. Osborne.

***

James [1:19–26] begins with three characteristics of what we may call “people of the word,” those who truly center their lives on God’s principles for a proper walk with Christ. This provides not just the thesis of this section but another major emphasis of the book as a whole. It introduces everything that follows. . . . [Read more…]

Get the Newest Book from N. T. Wright—a Man Who’s Shaped New Testament Scholarship

His groundbreaking works have reshaped our understanding of the earliest Christians—and New Testament scholarship. 

His writing and teaching have impacted countless followers of Jesus, so much so that an article in Christianity Today states that “when Wright speaks, preaches, or writes, folks say they see Jesus, and lives are transformed.”1 [Read more…]

4 Views of the End Times—and What They Have in Common

This excerpt about the end times is adapted from Jesus Wins by Dayton Hartman, now on sale along with many other books and courses on eschatology. [Read more…]

September’s Top Picks: The Story of God Commentary, Books by Carson and Moo, and More

Bolster your theological and ministry studies with 15 in-depth research and pastoral ministry collections from Zondervan—all 40% off this month.  [Read more…]

Why We Can’t Care for ‘the Least of These’ without Prison Ministry

prison ministry

By David Instone-Brewer, adapted from Moral Questions of the Bible: Timeless Truth in a Changing World.

Prison is a great place to find Jesus. 

A friend of mine in Cambridge offered to work in a prison as a chaplain and found that prisoners were very receptive to the gospel. Of course, many were just as resistant as they were outside, but others were much more open. They didn’t need convincing that something was wrong with their lives, and they had plenty of time to think about the good news he shared with them. After some time, a significant number of people had become Christians, and the prison governor offered him a full-time paid post because he needed fewer guards in the wing he’d been working in.[pullquote]

Christians don’t only help those who are Christians or who might convert. The criterion isn’t whether they are interested in Jesus, but whether Jesus is interested in them.[/pullquote] [Read more…]

The One Thing You Can’t Get More of—and Why It Matters for Knowing Christ

This post is adapted from In Season and Out: Sermons for the Christian Year by David A. deSilva.

Paul, of course, was not just a seeker of Christ on Sundays. His passion for knowing Christ Jesus spilled all over his calendar. Granted, Paul was a bit of a fanatic when it came to knowing Jesus and making Jesus known, but nevertheless, let’s allow his example to challenge us.  [Read more…]

How to (Mis)Interpret Prophecy

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem, David Roberts (1796–1864)

There’s no shortage of advice on how to interpret the Bible. One maxim that I’ve already mentioned advises, “When the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” I’ve heard it quoted when it comes to biblical prophecy—encouraging people to interpret literally, at face value. Although that sounds like good advice, some New Testament writers didn’t get the memo. [Read more…]

What This Little-Known Social Theory Has to Do with Your Sermons

By Jeffrey Arthurs, adapted from Preaching Points: 55 Tips for Improving Your Pulpit Ministry.

Remember ERP: Estimated Relationship Potential. This is a social science theory from the field of interpersonal communication which demonstrates that when we meet someone we quickly form an estimate of the potential for a relationship. We start to calculate: What kind of relationship is possible here? What will the nature of our relationship be? Will it be a romantic relationship? Will it be an authoritative relationship? Maybe I want to avoid this person. [Read more…]