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How Did Salvation and Forgiveness Take Place in the Old Testament?

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How were people forgiven (or saved) in the Old Testament? Did forgiveness (or salvation) take place in the Old Testament through sacrifices or human effort? The short answer is forgiveness (and salvation) was received in the Old Testament the same way it’s received in the New Testament: by grace through faith.

The Gospel can’t be a New Testament invention, because God preached the Gospel to Abraham:

God…preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.”

Galatians 3:8

The words, “In you all the nations shall be blessed” do not sound like a gospel presentation to us because there is no mention of Jesus’ name, death, burial, or resurrection. But God’s promise allowed Abraham to be saved by grace when he looked forward in faith to the Seed that would bless all nations. Genesis 15:6 says Abraham “believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”

Similarly, God preached the Gospel to Israel:

The gospel was preached to [Israel in the wilderness.

Hebrews 4:2

God made numerous prophecies that a Messiah would come into the world. If people believed those prophecies, they were saved by grace through faith. They looked forward in faith to the Messiah coming as we look back in faith that He came. Old and New Testament believers are both saved by looking to Christ in faith, but from opposite sides of the cross. People in the Old Testament were saved by believing Jesus would come like we’re saved by believing Jesus came.

Old Testament Saints Looked Forward to “The Seed of the Woman”

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.”

Genesis 3:15

This prophecy is part of the curse, and it allowed Adam, Eve, and their descendants to look forward to she “Seed of the Woman,” capitalized, because it’s referring to Jesus. When sin came into the world, so too did the opportunity for people to be saved by grace through faith. Just as we pass along to our children what we know about Christ, this prophecy would’ve been passed along to Adam and Eve’s descendants, allowing them to be saved by grace through faith.

The basis for salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various ages.

Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 1965

Unfortunately, people think of the Gospel as a New Testament invention, but Paul uses the Old Testament to present the Gospel. He explains justification by faith apart from the law and works in Romans 3:21-28. Then he discusses two prominent Old Testament men to have credibility with his Jewish readers. In the process he shows people were forgiven (or saved) in the Old Testament, just as believers are in the New Testament.

Paul’s First Example of Old Testament Salvation: Abraham—The Father of the Jewish People

Although Abraham was well-respected, he committed well-known sins:

  • God commanded Abraham to leave his family behind. He failed by bringing his nephew Lot (Genesis 12:1-4).
  • Abraham failed when he left Canaan, went to Egypt, and tried to protect himself by telling Sarah to say she was his sister (Genesis 12:10-20).
  • Sarah told Abraham to have a child with Hagar, and he obeyed her (Genesis 16:1-2).
  • Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister (Genesis 20:2).

What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

Romans 4:1-2

We can boast if we’re justified by works, “but not before God,” because it wouldn’t impress him.

What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Romans 4:3

Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, which summarizes the Gospel. Abraham was justified by faith. He was saved by believing God.

Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.

Romans 4:4

When your boss gives you a paycheck you’d be offended if he said, “This is a gift.” You worked for it; therefore, you earned it. A system of works makes God “obligated” to us.

However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

Romans 4:5

The man who attempts to be justified – or saved – by works is not trusting God. He’s trusting himself. The man who trusts God finds his faith credited – or given to him – as righteousness. His faith was shown to be genuine when he was willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

The Seed of Abraham

In Genesis 12:3 God told Abraham: “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” Abraham’s seed is Isaac, but God’s words look past him to Jesus, the true and greater “Son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Peter identified Jesus as the Seed when he quoted Genesis 12:3 while preaching:

You are sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying to Abraham, “And in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” To you first, God, having raised up His Servant Jesus, sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.

Acts 3:25–26

Paul also referred to Jesus as the Seed when he quoted Genesis 12:3:

And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” Who is Christ.

Galatians 3:8 and 16

Although God promised Abraham countless descendants, He spoke of one specific Seed “Who is Christ.” All the descendants of Abraham—Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, or any others—pale in comparison to Jesus because only through Him would “all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Abraham spent years looking forward in faith to the birth of his son, Isaac, but Jesus is the only Son he could look forward to in faith for salvation.

To learn more about Old Testament forgiveness and salvation, listen to this sermon I preached on the topic…

Paul’s Second Example of Old Testament Salvation: David—The King of the Jewish People

According to God’s Law, David committed two sins that should’ve resulted in death: adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). A few things made David’s terrible sins even worse:

  • David’s accountability—He knew God’s Law well.
  • David was blessed—God brought him of that shepherd’s field where he was a nobody born to a no-name family. Then God turned him into the rich and powerful king of Israel.
  • David’s sins were premeditated—He planned out all the details, even writing a letter to Joab that he had Uriah himself carry. It was one of the darkest moments in the Old Testament.

If David had to be justified, or declared righteous by works, he’d stand condemned before God. Since justification is by faith, he felt very blessed…

David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

Romans 4:6

David agreed with Abraham about justification by faith, and he wrote about his thankfulness:

“Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”

Psalm 32:1-2 which Paul quoted in Romans 4:7-8

When you’ve sinned like David did, you’re very thankful when God doesn’t “count” those sins against you, but instead “counts” or “credits” righteousness to you.

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!

Romans 4:9-10

Abraham was declared righteous by God in Genesis 15:6 when he “believed God” at 86 years old. He wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17:24, when he 99. Since he was declared righteous 13 years before he was circumcised, he had to be justified by faith and not works.

David’s Sins Should not Have Received Forgiveness

If anyone deserved death it was David, but this is also why David’s situation provides one of the greatest examples of God’s grace and mercy in all of Scripture. Nathan the Prophet confronted David, and he responded:

“I have sinned against the Lord.”

2 Samuel 12:13a

This is how we should respond when we sin. In these few words David provides a number of lessons:

  • Take ownership: “I have…”
  • Call it what it is: “sin.”
  • Acknowledge the sin was “against the Lord”
  • Avoid excuses and blame shifting.

Then Nathan said:

“The Lord also has taken away your sin.”

2 Sam 12:13b

These are some of the most amazing words in the Old Testament. Despite the enormity and wickedness of David’s sin, it was “taken away”:

“It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Hebrews 10:4 and 11

Sacrifices couldn’t forgive sins, say nothing of take them away. How could Nathan say this to David? His sins were taken away the same way ours are taken away:

  • When John the Baptist saw Jesus he said, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
  • 1 John 3:5 says “[Jesus] was manifested to take away our sins.”

If any Old Testament sacrifices could take away sins, Jesus’s sacrifice would’ve been unnecessary. David looked forward in faith to Jesus the way we look backward in faith to our Savior.

The New Covenant Foreshadowed in the Old Covenant

The grace and mercy David received provide a beautiful glimpse of the New Covenant under the Old Covenant. What did David do to receive this forgiveness?

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.

Psalm 51:16-17

David didn’t offer any sacrifices. He had a spiritual insight that was tremendous. He knew parts of the New Testament before they were written, and he knew no Old Testament sacrifices could make up for his sins.

But he did know there was a “sacrifice” he could “give”; he knew there was an “offering” God “desired”: “a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.”

David Confess his sin and it “took away” evil sins he committed. This is without personal merit, human effort, or penance. This is New Covenant forgiveness by grace; justification by faith.

Forgiveness that Provided Life Instead of Death

David’s sins demanded death, but he found: life. Nathan also said:

“You shall not die.”

2 Samuel 12:13c

These words mean David was going to die. The Old Covenant (the Law) demanded what it always demands: death. But David was able to find life. He recognized the greatness of what took place, which led him to write Psalm 32. Paul quoted this in Romans 4, showing forgiveness and salvation took place the same way in the Old and New Testaments.

Discussion Questions to Answer in the Comments Section 

  • Do you agree or disagree with the post?
  • How did you previously think people were forgiven and saved in the Old Testament? Do you think that now?
  • What other supporting verses from the Old Testament come to mind? What verses from the New Testament?

10 Responses

  1. Your post makes sense in terms of Hebrews but how were the Gentiles forgiven in the Old Testament if they were not God’s chosen people? I know people like Rehab were Gentile and came to know God. But, what if you were a gentile and were not part of the Hebrews to know? Were you sent to Hell?

    1. That’s a good question and one that many people have.

      It’s important to understand that the Old Testament is largely the record of the nation of Israel, because that’s the nation that God used to bring Messiah into the world. So in a sense you could say it’s the history of the Messiah’s ancestors. Israel is a small nation. You could fit five Israels in the state of California. There were plenty of other nations, including many bigger and more powerful ones, throughout Israel’s history, but the Old Testament doesn’t focus on them. You do get glimpses into God’s dealings with them at times. In particular, if you read some of the prophets, such as Jeremiah, who prophesied to the nation of Judah, but toward the end of the book there are many prophecies to the surrounding nations.

      Some prophets such as Jonah, Nahum, and Obadiah, were strictly prophets to Gentile nations. They preached to Assyria and Edom. Other prophets such as Amos record messages sent to multiple nations. This shows God was dealing with these nations, but the Old Testament doesn’t focus on those dealings.

      All that to say, when people in these nations responded in faith they were saved. When they repented and looked to God and believed he would send the Messiah, they were justified by faith just like the Jews. The main difference between the Jews and Gentiles was that the Jews were given the law. But everyone throughout all human history has been saved the same.

  2. So if people could receive forgiveness and salvation before the cross but traditional Christianity teaches that Christ died to enable people to be forgiven and saved what was the point? References to a few key prophets leaves out what happened to ordinary people before Christ.
    Maybe God always was a forgiving God and Christ died for other reasons.
    Maybe Paul and the early Church got it all wrong because Christs death so devastated the early Christians they had to find some higher reason to try and make sense of it all.
    Maybe Christs death teaches us something else!!

    1. Hello David,
      You ask a few different questions and made a few different points, so I thought it best to copy your comment and respond to much of it individually…

      So if people could receive forgiveness and salvation before the cross but traditional Christianity teaches that Christ died to enable people to be forgiven and saved

      The substitutionary death of Christ on the cross is what allows people to be forgiven in the Old and New Testaments alike. Another way to say it is people were saved by the death of Christ before and after the cross. Those in the Old Testament looked forward in faith to the Messiah as we look back in faith. They had faith that he would come we have faith that he did come.

      what was the point?

      I’m assuming you mean what was the point of Christ’s death on the cross? If so, the point is to provide the forgiveness of our sins. If he didn’t die and we would have to receive the punishment for our sins. Instead, those who repent and put their faith in his sacrifice are forgiven of those sins because they were paid at the cross.

      References to a few key prophets leaves out what happened to ordinary people before Christ.

      I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean here. If you would like to elaborate I would be happy to respond.

      Maybe God always was a forgiving God

      God always was and always is a forgiving God. There’s no question about that. If he wasn’t forgiving everyone who has ever lived would go to hell.

      and Christ died for other reasons.

      Like what? The Bible is overwhelmingly clear that he died so we can be forgiven and reconciled to God.

      Maybe Paul and the early Church got it all wrong because Christs death so devastated the early Christians they had to find some higher reason to try and make sense of it all.

      The problem is that centuries before Jesus died there were many prophecies that his death would do exactly what the New Testament writers wrote it did. Read Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. They discussed him dying for our sins. Isaiah 53 in particular is filled with the language of substitutionary atonement. The New Testament writers degree with the Old Testament writers, because God is the Author of Scripture from beginning to end.

      Maybe Christs death teaches us something else!!

      Do you want to share what you think this is? I don’t think we even need to wonder since the Bible tells us.

  3. Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God’s covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was “cut off” from God’s promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

    “Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

    What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

    “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

    This covenant wasn’t just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a “decision for God” when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

    If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time “decision for God” upon reaching an “Age of Accountability” in order to be saved.

    Therefore Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

    The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being “cut off” from God’s promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

    Christ said, “He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned.”

    It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals
    An orthodox Lutheran blog

    1. Hello Gary,
      Thank you for reading and commenting. You hold to a covenantal view, and you can tell my view is dispensational. I don’t believe children are born into a covenant. Instead, they’re descendants of Adam with sinful natures. At least we can agree on th Gospel though.

  4. Glory to God He is still willing to forgive even after we know the truth that sin deserves the death penalty. However, this post fails to mention the terrible temporal judgement that fell upon David and his house. His life and testimony was never the same as before. Sinning after receiving salvation is a terrible thing, and we can expect severe chastisement from the Lord if we be sons. God have mercy on us.

    1. Hi Mario,
      You’re right that forgiveness does not equal an absence of consequences. We can be forgiven and there can still be terrible consequences. Sometimes people say, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” In other words, since we won’t be permitted to do something, we can do it and ask for forgiveness later. This quote fails to take into consideration the consequences of sin, because it implies that you when you’re forgiven you won’t suffer as a result of your actions.

    1. Hi Augustine,
      I’m not sure if I completely understand your comment. If you mean why wasn’t David punished for his sins, I’d say the answer is the main point of the post. David wasn’t punished for his sins – he received mercy – even though punishment was deserved. This is the case for us in the New Testament as well. We deserve to be punished, but Jesus took that punishment on Himself.

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