How were people saved before Jesus died on the cross?
Saved by Grace
Believers have the privilege of looking backward at the saints of the Old Testament, and seeing how their belief in God was validated by their actions (more on that later), but today we know that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2:8), so it is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9), and if we could boast about saving ourselves by works, you know we would! This also gives all the glory to God for our salvation. This means works have no part in our salvation except for validating that we are saved. James wrote, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18). If there are no good works after a person is saved, then that person might not be saved, for “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him” (James 2:14)? No. James says that kind of faith cannot save them because it is a dead faith. Of course, we are saved to do good works because “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Not saved by works but saved to do works for Christ (i.e. Matt 25:35-36) that God has long ago, ordained that we should walk in them (Eph 2:10).
Confirming your Call
When Jesus was going to heal a father’s son, the father wanted to believe, but “said, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24a). Why did he say that? Perhaps he was not sure that Jesus would heal his son because of his own weak faith, but in the end, Jesus did heal the boy (Mark 9:25). Jesus had succeeded where his disciples has failed (Mark 9:18). If the man’s faith determined whether the boy would have been healed or not, then the boy would have likely never been healed, but the man’s faith, apparently being weak, was no obstacle to Jesus. The father probably did believe after this. He may have believed Jesus could heal, but he may have doubted his own faithfulness to God or lack of faith in God. Thankfully, salvation does depend on us but upon God who draws us to Himself through Christ (John 6:44). There are really only four classes of people on the earth. They are people who think they are saved but are not; people who think they are saved and are; people who think they are not saved but are, and people who think they are not saved and full well know it. This is why the Apostle Peter wanted us to “be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Pet 1:10). That confirmation may come from within their own heart, be more like, it’ll be confirmed in the works they would have otherwise never done. Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (John 15:8). Making your election sure could be just as easy as looking back at your life and seeing a pattern of growing holiness (sanctification), and growth in grace and the knowledge of the Word of God. These are fruits of salvation in a sense.
Old Testament Saints
We know the Old Testament saints, such as Noah, Moses, Elijah, Abraham, David, and many others were saved, but how could they be saved even before Jesus’ death on the cross? The same way we were saved. We believed God and it was accounted to us as righteousness. It says that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). That’s why he and many other Old Testament saints were saved. They believed God. Moses believed God and proved it by observing “the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them” (Heb 11:28). By seeing Moses and Elijah in the transfiguration, we know that they are still alive, and they will be in the kingdom (Matt 17:1-8). God is the God of the living and not the dead (Mark 12:27), so the dead saints of old will be in the coming kingdom, just as your departed, but saved family and friends will be. All of these saints were “gathered to their people” (Gen 25:8, 49:33; Deut 32:50), meaning they would see their descendants again. Even David who lost his infant son knew he would see him again (2 Sam 12:23). That’s because Jesus’ work goes backward in time, while resting in the present, but extending into the future for all who will trust in Christ, some not even born yet.
Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death, and subsequent resurrection means we too can be saved, just as the Old Testament saints believed God and it was accounted to them as God’s very own righteousness. The Apostle Paul tells us that it was “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21), but this also means it was for their sake too! They had their sins atoned for by Christ before Christ even existed in the flesh. God accepts that sacrifice and it is sufficient for all sins, but also it is all efficient to save all who believe, no matter when they were born.
Article by Jack Wellman
Jack Wellman is Pastor of the Mulvane Brethren Church in Mulvane Kansas. Jack is a writer at Christian Quotes and also the Senior Writer at What Christians Want To Know whose mission is to equip, encourage, and energize Christians and to address questions about the believer’s daily walk with God and the Bible. You can follow Jack on Google Plus or check out his book Teaching Children the Gospel available on Amazon.