While denominations vary on exactly how salvation is obtained, the Bible clearly teaches that Christians are saved from Hell and admitted into Heaven by the infinite payment of the infinite being (God), who became incarnate as a man (Jesus of Nazareth), and as an infinite being in a finite body, paid for the past, present and future sins of mankind. Today, simply by confessing “with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and if you believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Recognition that we have sinned (whether you have lied, stolen, lusted, coveted, and the like) and asking for forgiveness of your sins brings forgiveness, as 1st John 1:9 shows. On the mind of many, however, is a simple and innocent question: “How were people saved before Jesus?”
The question is valid. If we are saved by expressing faith in Jesus Christ, who is God the Son, and by the grace of God, how were the ancients saved? What of the likes of Adam and Eve? What of Noah and Abraham, Job and his companions, or Moses and the Israelites? The list stretches onward. If salvation is through Jesus alone (John 14:6), yet believers in B.C. times lived prior to the sacrifice of God on the cross, how were they saved? The question is not particularly concerning details about Heaven or Hell, but a theological question concerning how people were saved before Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, literally opening the way to Heaven through his infinite being. The simple answer is that these people were saved just as we are today, by grace through faith. The difference essentially is thus: while we are able to look back to Christ, they were looking forward to Christ. The ancients were not without revelation from the Creator, as we may assume, but clearly had a grasp on the concept of faith and grace. Those who loved God wished to be with Him forever. The Old Testament writers were given revelation from God concerning salvation.
For example, King David wrote, concerning God’s grace, wrote, “Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed are those whose sin the LORD does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:1-5). Paul alludes to the fact that David understood God’s gift of salvation (Romans 4:6-8), and as demonstrated by Hebrews 11:13 says, the ancients “[lived] by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” Clearly, believers of antiquity understood that good works could not save them (Isaiah 64:6), and also understood that animal sacrifices and meal offerings could not save them (Psalm 40:6). Clearly, the notion that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” as described in the New Testament, is found in the Old Testament.
According to Ecclesiastes 7:20, “Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins,” clearly demonstrating an understanding that all people sin. Solomon, who likely wrote Ecclesiastes, probably wrote c.935 BC. The apostle Paul dealt with this question of salvation, pre-Christ, in Romans 4. Citing the Old Testament, he demonstrated that is was by grace through faith, just as it is today. “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness…. Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised…. Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all” (Romans 4:1-5, 9-10, 16).
It was not through works or acts that saved Abraham – the act of circumcision was not introduced until ten years after God credited Abram as righteous (Genesis 17). What has changed, then, between then and now? “What has changed through the ages is the content of a believer’s faith. God’s requirement of what must be believed is based on the amount of revelation He has given mankind up to that time. This is called progressive revelation. Adam believed the promise God gave in Genesis 3:15 that the Seed of the woman would conquer Satan. Adam believed Him, demonstrated by the name he gave Eve (v. 20) and the Lord indicated His acceptance immediately by covering them with coats of skin (v. 21). At that point that is all Adam knew, but he believed it. Abraham believed God according to the promises and new revelation God gave him in Genesis 12 and 15. Prior to Moses, no Scripture was written, but mankind was responsible for what God had revealed. Throughout the Old Testament, believers came to salvation because they believed that God would someday take care of their sin problem. Today, we look back, believing that He has already taken care of our sins on the cross (John 3:16; Hebrews 9:28).”
When Jesus was speaking about Abraham, he noted, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). John 12:41 conveys, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.” According to Acts 2:31, “Seeing what was to come, [David] spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay.” Evidently, these ancient believers looked forward to the Messiah, and even “saw Jesus’ glory,” “Seeing what was to come.” Moses also looked forward to the coming of Christ, “[regarding] the disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:26). In fact, Moses also wrote about the Messiah, just as Jesus said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:46). Job, who lived either shortly before or shortly after Abraham, anticipated the Messiah. Just as recorded in Job 19:25, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.” The Old Testament looks forward to the coming Messiah (מָשִׁיחַ, Mashiaẖ), as did wise men and others of Old Testament times.
Jude 14 says, “Enoch, the seventh from Adam, prophesied about them: ‘See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy ones.'” Enoch, who lived a few centuries after creation, prophesied about the Messiah. Although it was not recorded in Scripture, it is also reasonable to think that Enoch also prophesied about the first coming of Jesus, just as the Old Testament prophets had. The birthplace of Christ was mentioned (Micah 5:2), his betrayal was mentioned (Zechariah 11:12), as was the details of His death (Psalm 22, Isaiah 53), as well as His resurrection (Psalm 16:10, Isaiah 26:19, 53:11), and many other details about His birth, life, death and resurrection. So much was written about the Messiah that Acts 10:43 says, “All the prophets testify about Him that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” This is why Jesus asked Nicodemus, “You are Israel’s teacher, and you do not understand these things?” (John 3:10).
Although the ancient believers did not know every detail of how their sin would be paid for, or how they could be saved, they did what they could with the information available to them, and were saved by grace through faith. Just as Hebrews 1:1-2 records, “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.” The sacrifice of Jesus was planned from the beginning of time (2nd Timothy 1:9; Revelation 13:8), and believers of antiquity were aware that their sins would be atoned for (Isaiah 53:6). The prophets of old, through revelation from the Creator, taught that grace through faith was the path of salvation. “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into” (1st Peter 1:10-12, emphasis added).
As demonstrated by texts such as Luke 24, Jesus “opened [His disciples’] understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem'” (Luke 24:45-47). Acts 3:18-24 reads, “But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began.” Therefore, we rightly conclude that the believers of old understood, even in part, that their Messiah would come. Just as we are today, people before Jesus were saved by faith alone. An issue that tends to arise in the mind of some is that those believers did not have complete knowledge of Jesus, His birth, life, death, and resurrection, and therefore could not have been saved by faith in God.
However, “Who among us has a truly ‘complete’ faith? If you are a Christian, are you ‘completely’ knowledgeable regarding everything that could be known about God, his Savior and the plan of Salvation? How much of a theologian do you have to be to be saved? Must your faith be ‘complete’ or is there some level of ‘sufficiency’ required? How much do you need to ‘know’ to ‘know’ if you are saved? Can you answer every question about the Trinity, for example? Do you completely understand how it is that Jesus could be completely human yet completely God at the same time? Does your lack of ‘complete’ understanding disqualify you from Salvation? Each of us is expected to do the most we can with the information that we have. Someday, each of us will be held accountable for the information that we have received from God. We will be asked, ‘What did you do with what I revealed to you?’ Just like us, the Old Testament saints did the most they could with what was revealed to them. They placed all their faith in all that God had given them. And this faith in God and His promise of a future Savior was sufficient for them to be included in the family of God.”
As conveyed by Jim Wallace, “Just like us, these early believers were saved by grace alone, through the Savior alone, even though their understanding was not as complete as ours is today.” None may have complete understanding of God, the universe and how it works, or how Jesus could be both God and man, and indeed, none of us truly do. God has given us sufficient information about Him to come to a decision about whether or not we will accept Him or deny Him. God denies none of us, it is us who deny Him. If an individual does not enter into Heaven after death, it is not fault of God’s, but the fault lies with the individual. This has been true from the beginning of time. From the first man who encountered death, Abel, “By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead” (Hebrews 11:4). Chapter eleven of the book of Hebrews is sometimes called the “Heroes of Faith,” “Faith in Action,” or the “Hall of Faith.” From Abel to Enoch, Noah to Abraham, Isaac to Moses, Gideon, David, Samuel, and several others are mentioned as serving God “by faith.” Why is faith so important? Faith is necessary for salvation, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that He exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). How were people saved before Jesus? “By faith!”