The simple answer is that OT saints were saved the exact same way that we are today: by grace, through faith, (in Christ.) How is that possible? What does that mean? And why did you put “in Christ” in parenthesis? Let me explain.
- No one has ever been redeemed because of his/her race or ethnicity.
The Jews are repeatedly called God’s chosen people in the Bible. But, Israel’s being “chosen” as a nation is not the same as them being “saved.” They were chosen to have a unique national relationship with God as the recipients of the first covenant. Of all the nations in the world, they received God’s special revelation, both scripturally and incarnationally. In other words, Israel was given the word of God in the OT Scriptures as well as the Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ. As such, the people of Israel were to be a beacon of light to all the peoples of the world.
Even though most of Israel rejected Christ, God has and will continue to save Jewish men and women. As Romans 11:2 states “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.” That should not surprise us. The mother of all churches was the church of Jerusalem, made up of the original disciples who were the first, truly, Messianic Jews – who trusted Christ and urged their kinsmen to do the same.
We should be clear, though, that while Israel was born into a covenant relationship with God as a nation, they are not, by default, born into a personal, redemptive relationship with God. That is a separate issue.
- No one has ever been redeemed because of his/her works or religion.
Many think that OT saints were saved by keeping the OT Law. However, Galatians 3:11 makes it clear, “the fact that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for ‘the righteous man shall live by faith’.” (By the way, before you think, “Wait. You can’t do that. That’s a New Testament verse…” Paul is actually quoting an Old Testament verse, Habakkuk 2:4).
That does not mean the Law was bad or wrong. In fact, 1 Tim 1:8 says, “we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully.” In other words, the law and its sacrificial system had a purpose. While it actually served several purposes, there was one clear one when it came to redemption.
God instituted Israel’s sacrificial system not as a means of redemption but as a picture of redemption. The lambs that were regularly sacrificed gave Israel hints about what was coming in Christ. Since they did this regularly for 1400 years, John the Baptist’s declaration of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”, had meaning and great significance. Hebrews 10:4 plainly states,
“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”
Think of Israel’s worship and sacrifices as a blueprint. A blueprint is a detailed plan of action or a design for what is to come. OT Israel did not know or experience the completed work, but they did know and experience the pattern and preplanned form. Today, we look back at the work of Christ and we appreciate its fullness and completion. OT saints looked forward in hope and trust to God and His promises (which are supremely bound-up in Christ).
Both #1 and #2 above are made clear in John 1:13. It states that people are born again “not of blood (race) nor of the will of the flesh (works) nor of the will of man (religion), but of God.” This still leaves the question, how were OT saints saved?
- Anyone that has ever been redeemed is saved by grace through faith.
Genesis 15:6 is the most succinct statement about OT salvation:
“Then Abraham believed in the LORD; and He reckoned (or credited) it to him as righteousness.”
There are no sacrifices in that verse. There is no circumcision in that verse. There is no law in that verse. (In fact, Abraham could not have been saved by keeping the Law, because he lived over 400 years before the Law was given!) In that verse, the critical component of Abraham’s salvation was faith!
His response of faith in God’s promises and word was rewarded by God. God credited His own righteousness to Abraham’s account just as He does today for those that believe. As Hebrews 11:2 says, it wasn’t by works, religion, or race, but it was by faith that “the men of old gained approval”.
DA Carson has said, “The Israelites were expected to take God at his Word and to trust him to forgive their sins according to all of his mercies. The (OT sacrifices) were emblematic of the ultimate sacrifice that was yet to come.” This is why I put the phrase “in Christ” in parenthesis. They did not have the book of Hebrews or Romans – that is the full, thorough explanation of the atonement – but they did have the shadows pointing them towards the source. You might even say that OT saints were looking up to God while God was looking ahead to Christ.
Specifically, Hebrews 9:15 states that Christ’s death took place:
“for the redemption of the transgressions that were committed under the first covenant, [so that] those who have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.” (emphasis added)
Animals were not slain to secure the forgiveness of OT believers, Christ was! Understand this, Jesus’ substitutionary death was timeless in its benefit.
Christ’s death was not only proactive (for men and women of faith in the future, e.g. today) but it was also retroactive (for men and women of faith in the past, e.g. OT times). I explain this to my kids in financial terms: OT saints were saved on the “credit” of Christ’s atonement while we are saved on the “debit” of Christ’s atonement.
We look back for our redemption. The OT saints looked forward for theirs. But regardless of which side of the cross we live on, all saints (OT & NT) look, by grace, through faith, to the same God of redemption – Who has brought all things together in the Messiah, the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ!