Salvation. Justification. Righteousness. These are all big churchy words but they all center around the same idea and the same problem: sin has separated us from God. So how do we get right with God? Salvation has always been:
So then the hard question is, “How were people saved before Jesus had died for sins?”
- By grace (that is: undeserved and unearned, it is a gift of God)
- Through faith (that is: trusting God to provide what we don’t deserve and can’t earn)
- Grounded in the death of Jesus Christ for our sins
Before I answer the question directly, let me point out that when we ask this question we’re thinking in a linear fashion, chronologically. Before Jesus. After Jesus. But Rev. 13:8 tells us that the name of every person who would ever be saved was written in the Lamb’s book of life “before the foundation of the world”. So God, in his sovereignty, had planned salvation based on Jesus’ atoning work far before he’d even created man. In other words, God had planned the solution before the problem ever existed. This means that God’s plan to take care of sin was always and had always been Jesus. Even before Jesus was born as a baby.
Now to the question itself. “How were people saved before Jesus had died for sins?” To put it simply, people who lived before Jesus were saved in the exact same way we are today. We must trust in God as he has most fully revealed himself to us. And when we do that, God credits the righteousness of Christ on those who believe and trust him. So God credits the righteousness of Christ backwards on those who had faith in God as fully as he had revealed himself back then, just as credits it forward to those who believe in Jesus today.
This is exactly what Romans 4:3 says of Abraham after God revealed himself and made a promise to Abraham. Paul writes: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” You can read Hebrews 11 for a bunch of examples from the Old Testament (that is, before Jesus). Each and every person listed there was commended as righteous for trusting God.
But the culmination, the climax of all the ways God revealed himself to us came in Jesus. And because God has revealed himself in Jesus, it is now true that we must trust in Jesus to be saved. You can believe some nice general things about God, but if you don’t have faith in Jesus as God’s fullest revelation, you’re not really trusting in God at all.
So the OT saints were saved by trusting in God as he revealed himself in greater ways as they were leading up to and even pointing to Jesus. We are saved today by trusting in God’s fullest revelation in Jesus. The people saved back then had to trust that God would someday provide for the forgiveness of their sin where they could not. We have the privilege today of looking back and knowing exactly when God made that provision, for them and for us. They were saved by looking forward and trusting God, we are saved by looking back and trusting God. At the center of it all, Jesus and the good news of his life death and resurrection.