Were Believers In The Old Testament Saved By Jesus?

During a recent small group class on Jerry Bridges’ The Transforming Power of the Gospel, several people were intrigued by a statement Bridges makes concerning the grace offered to Isaiah and his forgiveness of sins. Isaiah 6:7 says, “And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Based on that verse, Bridges says this: On what basis did God forgive Isaiah’s sin? He did it on the same basis for which he forgives our sin; the death of Jesus Christ, which would occur, as we reckon time, about seven hundred years later, but in God’s eternal timelessness, before the foundation of the world…So Isaiah’s guilt was taken away and his sin atoned for because Jesus died and shed his blood for Isaiah as well as for you and me.

The question I have received a few times since last Wednesday is…”is that right?”

Yes, he is correct and there are two things to consider. First is the biblical truth regarding his statement. Second is a simple observation.

The author of Hebrews helps us answer this question. Hebrews 10 describes the limitations of the OT law and sacrificial system. Verses 1-4 says: For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  

The law, the sacrifices, the festivals, the days, moons, and Sabbaths, were all the “shadow” of the “substance” that was to come. In other words, they all pointed to the real deal – Jesus. Hebrews teaches us that the sacrifices, despite being commanded by God, were ultimately useless without the substance of what they represent; the death of Jesus Christ. Now, add to that Hebrews 9:22 – “…without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

So, let’s take these two thoughts together.
1. It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
2. Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Remember what was said to Isaiah? “Your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” We know Isaiah’s sin was not atoned for by the blood of bulls and goats and we also know without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness for Isaiah. Hebrews also says, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar” (11:13).  The things promised, of course, was the coming Messiah who would save God’s people once and for all.

Based on these things, OT believers had saving faith in Jesus and his work on the cross without knowledge of the exact, historical details. They didn’t know specifics as to how, but they believed God would take care of the sin problem through the Messiah (Christ). Every act of sacrifice and observance of ceremonial law was grounded in the work of Christ, and it was because of the latter that the former had any significance. God credits the righteousness of Jesus to them based on their faith. Salvation has always been by faith in the work God has done in Christ.

Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology says it like this – “Those who were saved under the old covenant were also saved through trusting in Christ, even though their faith was a forward-looking faith based on God’s word of promise that a Messiah or a Redeemer would come.”

Now, a quick observation. This question brings to light the deadly, destructive, damning nature of sin. My hunch is that many Christians assume that God forgave sin in the Old Testament by simply “overlooking it.” If the chosen people were obedient, obeyed the law, and performed the proper sacrifices, God would overlook their sin. But this misses the sinfulness of sin. If God can easily forgive sin by overlooking it, or by making declaration of forgiveness based on an animal sacrifices alone, then the death of Jesus was pointless. This is why the author of Hebrews says, “in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin every year.” God’s attributes, including his mercy and justice, are not competing with one another. In other words, he does not exalt his mercy over his justice. Blood must be shed for the forgiveness of sin, but the blood of anything other than God himself will prove ineffective against the damning nature of sin. Therefore, as we consider this question, we should let the sinfulness of our own sin be re-examined, and then express once again our sincere thanksgiving for the mercy of God who shed the blood of his own Son in our place.

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