Published January 9, 2014
Question: “How were the Old Testament saints saved?”
Answer: This question has intrigued Christians for centuries. Within Christendom, two theories related to our question have risen above others: the Old Testament saints were saved by faith in God alone; and, the Old Testament saints were saved by their faith in a future Messiah.
At its most basic level, salvation in the Old Testament is derived from the Hebrew words “to deliver,” “to bring to safety,” and “to redeem.” The means of salvation were experienced individually, many times at theophanies (e.g., Abraham and Moses), and corporately through miraculous events (e.g., the Exodus). The question under consideration, however, deals with the former means of salvation as described in Scripture.
That the saints were saved by their faith in God alone is clearly emphasized in the Abrahamic narrative: “He [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Additionally, the sixth-century prophet Habakkuk received a similar proclamation from God following his questioning of the divine wrath that awaited Judah: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab 2:4b).
Presumably, the clearest articulation of this theory is found in the words of the eighth-century prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)? Collectively, these texts suggest salvation was attained through faith in God alone. In addition, several New Testament authors utilized the Old Testament theme of salvation through faith in God alone.
Both Paul and James, men steeped in Jewish tradition, quoted Genesis 15:6 to identify the faith of Abraham as the salvation par excellence in the Old Testament (Rom. 4:3, 9, 22; Gal. 3:6; Jas. 2:23).
In an attempt to alleviate the contentious relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome, Paul maintained that Abraham’s faith should not only inspire but also unite all Christians: “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Rom. 4:3).
Additionally, in Heb. 6:13-18, the author encourages his audience, presumably Jewish Hellenistic Christians, to persevere in the face of persecutions by having full assurance (Heb. 6:11; 10:22) for God is just and trustworthy. To encourage his audience, the author used the life of Abraham as an example of salvation (Heb. 6:13-18).
Elsewhere, Paul and the author of Hebrews utilize the phrase “righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4b) as a foundational component of their Christology (see Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:37-38). Thus, several New Testament authors seem to understand salvation in the Old Testament as faith in God alone.
Like the first, the second theory – faith in a future Messiah – also finds textual support. Genesis 3:15 has received much attention through the centuries: “I will put enmity between you (serpent) and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
This verse is labeled the protevangelium or “first gospel.” The verse was first identified as messianic by Jews in the third century BC. Naturally, Christians adopted the messianic interpretation of the verse.
For advocates of this theory, the “offspring” (lit. “seed” in Hebrew) of Eve (=Jesus) will be victorious over the serpent (=Satan).
The messianic nature of Gen 3:15 is related directly to the Hebrew term for “seed.” Women do not produce “seed” only males produce seed. Thus, the “seed” of Eve must be a messianic reference. Furthermore, the seed motif continues into the Abrahamic narrative with God promising Abram’s descendants (lit. “seed” in Hebrew) the land (Gen. 12:7; cf. Gen. 13:15, 16; 15:5, 13, 18; 17:7; and 22:18).
Thus, the second theory suggests the ancient Israelites were saved by their faith in a future Messiah, which is declared in the seed motif in Genesis.
Whether one chooses the former or the latter theory, one thing is certain, men and women of faith will continue to ponder: “How were the Old Testament saints saved?”
Dr. Jeffery Audirsch is assistant professor of Christian Studies at Shorter University.
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