How Were People Saved in the Old Testament?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?,” their answer was simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30–31).

That same uncomplicated answer holds true today.

However, there are several issues that arise when we consider the difference between salvation in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. First, some believe that people were saved in the Old Testament by keeping the Law of Moses but in the New Testament they are saved through God’s grace in Jesus the Messiah. They base this idea on John’s words: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

Second, others believe that since the Lord Jesus had not yet come in the Old Testament, people alive during that time could not yet consciously believe in Him, as they do now. So, they ask, how was it possible to be saved in Old Testament times? How can someone be saved without explicit knowledge of and faith in the Lord Jesus?

Third, in the Old Testament there was a required system of sacrifice for atonement, particularly on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). Hebrews 10:4 says “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Since this was done away with in the New Testament, what was the point of all those sacrifices? Let’s examine these three issues one at a time.

By Grace Through Faith

Salvation was, and has always been, by God’s grace through faith. This means that the forgiveness of our sin (i.e., salvation) was given by God’s undeserved kindness (grace) through trust (faith). No one could ever be justified (declared righteous by God) by works of the Law (Rom. 3:20, 28; Gal. 2:16; 3:5). In fact, the Law served to demonstrate the inability of people to keep it, “for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Paul taught that justification by faith isn’t contrary to the Law; in fact, it is precisely what is taught in the Law. He asked, “Do we then nullify the Law through faith? May it never be! On the contrary, we establish the Law” (Rom. 3:31), meaning Paul is establishing what the Law also teaches. How so? In the following paragraph of Romans (after an unfortunate chapter division), Paul, in Romans 4:1–5, quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Here he demonstrates that the Law of Moses taught justification by faith just as the New Testament does.

“All people, for all time, are saved by God’s grace through faith in the revealed will of God.”

So, what does John 1:17 mean? It should be understood from the perspective of emphasis. On the one hand, Moses, as the Lawgiver, accentuated God’s law. On the other hand, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah stressed God’s grace. Clearly, there was both grace and truth in the Mosaic covenant (cf. Ex. 34:6–7); in the same way there is the law, as well as grace, in the New Covenant (cf. 1 Cor. 9:20–22). In both situations, people are saved by God’s grace through faith.

The Content of Faith

If salvation was always by grace through faith, what did people have to believe before the coming of Jesus the Messiah? A good way to understand the content of faith is that it was, and always will be, the revealed will of God. So, what was revealed in Old Testament times? First, a person needed the object of his or her faith to be the one true, merciful God, trusting in His undeserved kindness as the basis of forgiveness: “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin . . .” (Ex. 34:6–7).

Second, a person had to offer a blood sacrifice, believing that it would serve as a substitution for personal sin. The Law of Moses says, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Lev. 17:11). From the time that God provided the skins of animals for Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:21) and then commanded blood offerings as an obligation of the Law of Moses, animal sacrifice was God’s requirement as a substitution for sin.

Third, Old Testament believers had to trust that God would send the Messiah. The messianic idea began with Genesis 3:15, which promised that the offspring of the woman would one day crush the head of the serpent. It included the prediction about the Servant of the Lord, who would “render Himself as a guilt offering” (Isa. 53:10) for sin. The hope of the Messiah also contained the expectation that a descendant of David would come to establish an eternal house, kingdom, and throne (1 Chron. 17:14; 2 Sam. 7:16). The messianic idea was so central to the Old Testament that believers living under its authority needed to trust that the Messiah would come one day.

This was different than conscious faith in Jesus of Nazareth. It was clear to the Old Testament prophets that the Messiah would come in the distant future. However, they did not know the “person or time,” meaning they did not know who He would be or when He would come (1 Peter 1:10–12). They understood that their prophecies were about the Messiah, but they did not know the specific person who would be the actual referent. As a result, people were to have faith in the future Messiah but they could not have explicit faith in Jesus of Nazareth, who had not yet come.

It’s clear that people in every generation were saved by grace through faith in the revealed will of God. What God revealed in Old Testament times was that people were to trust in the merciful one true God, the efficacy of the sacrifices offered in faith, and the hope of a future Messiah. But since animal sacrifices could not take away sin, what was the role of sacrifice until the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus?

The Role of Sacrifice

The Law of Moses established the principle of substitutionary atonement when it made provision for sacrifices to be offered for unintentional sin. The sin offering entailed a four-step process, beginning with substitution. An animal was selected to die as a substitute (Lev. 4:3, 14, 23, 28, 32; 5:7, 11). The next step was identification, when the person who offered the sacrifice placed a hand on the animal (Lev. 4:4, 15, 24, 29, 33) as a symbolic transfer of guilt from the person to the animal. What followed was the death of the animal, with its blood poured on the altar. In this way, the animal’s life paid for the transferred sin. The final aspect was the exchange of life (Lev. 4:4, 24, 29, 33), meaning that because the animal had given its life in payment of sin, the person could now live. After the full disposal of the animal (Lev. 4:8–12, 19, 31, 35), indicating the complete removal of sin, the person was genuinely forgiven (Lev. 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:6, 10). The exchange of life principle was established to prepare Israel to understand the significance of the Messiah’s substitutionary atonement.

But how were intentional sins forgiven? Although some have contended they couldn’t be, it’s more likely that the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16) were given for all sin, both intentional and unintentional. The blood remained on the altar for the entire year, making provision for the sins of the people. But since sin offerings and Day of Atonement offerings did not actually take away sin, how did they work? Sacrifices were temporary payments, holding off the debt of sin. My experience with college students provides a way to understand this.

Suppose you are a college student and you have just received your first credit card. Anxious to use it, you go to the bookstore and purchase your books for the upcoming semester, paying with the credit card. That was so easy that when you grew tired of the student dining room food, you would go to your favorite burger joint for dinner and pay with your credit card. Then you would go on a date and use the credit card to pay for everything. This continued until the monthly bill came. You looked at it and said, “I don’t have the money to pay for this!” So, you paid just the minimum amount, merely covering part of the interest on the card. This pattern continued, month after month, with more and more credit taken, and only a small part of the accrued interest paid. In this way, the debt was paid monthly, but the principal and interest kept building.

This is similar to the way the animal sacrifices worked, particularly the Day of Atonement offerings. They never completely took away the actual debt of sin, but they held off the divine bill collector until the next payment was due. It covered what was owed but the debt was not really resolved. That’s why the author of Hebrews could say “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:4).

Animal sacrifices were the minimum payment, but they never covered the growing principal and interest of the debt of sin. But when the Messiah Jesus came, He “offered one sacrifice for sins for all time” (Heb. 10:12), paying both the entire principle and all the interest for all sins, past, present and future. In this way, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus offers the only actual payment for the sins of all people, for all time.

One issue that remains is that some contend that since people in the Old Testament could be saved by believing in the coming of the future Messiah and that His atonement was applied to them after His substitutionary death and resurrection, perhaps this is so today. Would it be possible for someone today, who is hoping in a future Messiah without explicit faith in Jesus, to still have a forgiven relationship with God? The answer is no, that’s no longer possible because it misses the point of the phrase “the revealed will of God.” Hebrews begins by saying that indeed God has spoken by the prophets in many parts and ways in the past, but “in these last days [He] has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1–2). Today, we are saved by grace through faith in God’s revealed will, which is trusting that Jesus the Messiah died for us and rose again. At present, we must have explicit faith in the Lord Jesus. Just as Jesus said, “For unless you believe that I am He [His messianic Deity], you will die in your sins” (John 8:24). Now that the Messiah Jesus has come, all people are called to have explicit faith in Him.

Final Thoughts

To sum up, all people, for all time, are saved by God’s grace through faith in the revealed will of God. It is impossible for us to go back to Old Testament times because we now live in the time of the New Covenant. God has made full provision for us to experience total forgiveness for all our sins—past, present, and future. We must believe that Jesus died as our substitute sacrifice for sin and was raised again, proving He is God, and then we will enter a forgiven and eternal relationship with the God of the universe.

For Further Reading:

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