Read more of Dr. White at www.randywhiteministries.org.
One of the most common questions asked among the faithful is the question of Old Testament salvation. The sheer volume of those asking this question is a testament to dispensationalism, that the logical mind recognizes a change in dispensations even without knowing the answers to the questions or the specifics to the changes. Theologians, however, often somewhat allergic to dispensationalism, quickly undo the clear change and then force-fit all of history and theology into one neat package called Covenant theology. But when we check the facts, do they align with the oft given answers?
The typical answer to the question about Old Testament salvation goes something like this: All people of all time have always and forever been saved in the same way, “by grace, through faith.” Then they “prove” their point using the proof-text of Genesis 15:6, “Then he (Abraham) believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.” Case closed. Next question?
The discerning mind will say, “Not so fast!” What did Abraham believe? What does it mean that “it was reckoned to him as righteousness?” Is this proof that Abraham and other Old Testament believers were saved by grace, through faith? Are you sure, as we are told, that those living before Christ simply looked forward and believe, while those since Christ look back and believe? While this answer sounds simple, perhaps it is simplistic.
First, in Genesis 15:6, Abraham is believing the Lord concerning His promise to make a great nation through him. Specifically, that Eliezer of Damascus, Abraham’s servant, would not be the heir, but rather, “one who will come forth from your own body” (Genesis 15:4). Abraham believed that God would give him a physical offspring and, through that boy, the nation would come. Abraham believed this promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Abraham’s belief was in a baby, a land, and a nation. But is Genesis 15:6, quoted numerous times in the New Testament, used in such a way that one can trust these words as proof-text of Old Testament salvation by grace through faith? When studied, one will find that each New Testament quote of the Genesis verse simply proclaims that the Abrahamic promise was received by faith, and in the same manner, the salvation of our age is a gift of God’s grace, received in faith. Some will protest that Romans 4 declares that Abraham was justified by faith (quoting Genesis 15:6). However, James also quotes Genesis 15:6 and says that Abraham was justified “by works and not by faith alone.” Simply because the word “justified” is used is not evidence that salvation unto eternal life is the context.
I want to be careful that I do not use Genesis 15:6 as a proof-text and never really research the details. Too often, those of us who are believers are dismissive of hard questions, which make our faith vulnerable to twisting and perversion, and makes skeptics (who often ask good questions, penetrating questions) dismissive of our faith.
Problems come when you begin to find other passages of Scripture that clearly are talking about salvation, and they don’t seem to agree with the standard “Abraham believed, and that settles it” response. For example, Ephesians 2:11-12 says that gentiles were “having no hope and without God in the world” during the period of the Law. Do we really believe this? If so, how does it align with our easy faith answer? If we really believe Ephesians 2:11-12, then we would have to say that, outside the commonwealth of Israel and the covenants of promise, the faith of gentiles in the Old Testament meant nothing, did nothing, accomplished nothing. Unless a gentile of faith converted to Judaism and became a citizen of Israel and an adherent to Judaism, there was no hope. Only “now, in Christ Jesus” have we “been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13).
Furthermore, when we look at the people of the Old Testament in the dispensation of the Law, were they really saved simply by believing? If so, why the sacrifices? Were they all just symbolic? Was the blood on the doorpost at Passover symbolic? Would God have saved a believer who did not put the blood on the doorpost? Would a Jew who failed to participate in the Day of Atonement find atonement anyway, as long as that Jew had faith? I think we have a hard time proving that any pre-cross individual who simply believed that God would someday send a Savior would receive imputed righteousness and be saved.
The real problem, in my estimation, is that we are asking the wrong question. In fact, we are asking a question which the Bible doesn’t answer (because it doesn’t ask that question). While this article will not give the specifics, I believe that the Old Testament is about the restoration of creation, and man’s dominion over it. Creation would be brought back to man’s dominion (and thus its intended glory) through a man (Abraham) who would produce a nation (Israel) who would produce a King, Who would have dominion over all the earth. The Old Testament does not concern itself with matters of individual salvation. When one reads of salvation in the Old Testament, it is the salvation of the nation and the created order. There is very little about heaven and hell or a personal relationship with God in the Old Testament. It is not that those in the Old Testament did not believe in individual salvation or in the resurrection or in the afterlife, it is that the Old Testament is simply about another subject: the salvation of the created order. Only with the current dispensation of grace did the individual become the prominent theological concern, and only in this dispensation are we taught that we are personally saved, have a personal relationship with God through Christ, and will immediately be in Heaven when we die.
To ask questions about personal salvation in the Old Testament is intriguing, but beyond the scope of the text itself. While we could have interesting speculations about what constituted personal salvation, any of our answers would be speculation. And that which we don’t know, we should not answer with confidence!
Still Not Sure?
Before the age of Grace in which we live, there were plenty of people who lived by faith. Hebrews 11 gives a starter list for anyone wanting some further study. There are also plenty of people who were declared righteous in the Old Testament. For example:
Which of the above proof-texts shall we use to answer the question about Salvation before Christ?
Further, one could build a pretty strong argument that obedience to the Law was the way to salvation during the dispensation of the Law. Consider these verses:
Can we really be dismissive of all these scriptures by declaring that those of previous dispensations were saved the same way that those of this dispensation are saved? I simply do not think the answer is that easy. Further, I think that such an answer marginalizes the severity of physical obedience to the Law for those who lived under the Law. And, perhaps of even greater consequence, I think that such an answer confuses the divisions between dispensations for those of us living and studying the Word of God today.
If the test for salvation is always the same, then what is “rightly dividing the Word of truth” all about? I think it is this kind of sloppy division that has caused modern believers to partially release Old Testament Israelites from the Law and partially encumber New Testament believers with the Law. We have taken a middle-ground approach, which has caused the necessary re-interpretation of the non-middle-ground passages of Scripture. When you rightly divide the Word, you will see that it clearly states requirements for personal salvation in the dispensation in which we live. It also clearly states our freedom from the Law, under Christ. Let’s be satisfied with the answers the Bible gives, and know that only when we are no longer seeing through a glass dimly will we have full answer for all our questions.