Since the Gospel message is based on the death, burial, and Resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1–4), many have wondered how people who lived prior to the Incarnation of Christ could have been saved. In Hebrews 11, sometimes known as the “gallery of faith” or the “faith hall of fame,” we have a sampling of Old Testament saints whose lives pleased God. These heroes of the faith provide for us, even in these latter days, example after example of how to both live and die in times that are anything but receptive to the God of the Bible.
Yet, a question continues to be raised over the faith of these heroes. Who or what was the source of the salvation and the object of the faith of men like Abel and Enoch? How did Joshua and Jeremiah exercise saving faith? How did redemption touch the lives of Ruth and Rahab?
Personal salvation by grace through faith in the atoning work of Christ on the Cross may not have been as clear at the time of Noah as it is to us today. The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world came to the nation of Israel approximately four hundred years after the Old Testament canon was closed. How then could there be a clear object of faith if the object had not yet appeared?
Abraham Was Saved by Grace Through Faith
The Apostle Paul dealt with an issue in Romans 4 that helps us answer this important question. He used the Old Testament to show salvation has always been by God’s grace and can only be received through faith. While addressing those who thought they could save themselves by adhering to the Law of Moses, Paul made a brilliant argument.
What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness . . . . Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness. How then was it accounted? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised. . . . Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace, so that the promise might be sure to all the seed, not only to those who are of the law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (Romans 4:1–5, 9–10, 16)
To demonstrate his point that salvation comes through faith instead of works, Paul referred to Abraham, the forefather of the Jewish people. He cited Genesis 15:6, which reveals that Abram (Abraham) “believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” Circumcision was not introduced to Abraham and his descendants until Genesis 17—more than 10 years later.
Gospel Theme in the Old Testament
The Old Testament sets forth a gospel theme that people were saved from sin by grace through saving faith in the Lord and His promises.
Several texts from the New Testament illustrate this premise.
Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. To them it was revealed that, not to themselves, but to us they were ministering the things which now have been reported to you through those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things which angels desire to look into. (1 Peter 1:10–12, emphasis added)
This text reveals some important ideas. The “prophets . . . who prophesied” longed for the arrival of an era of grace. The “Spirit of Christ” within them was filling them with this great desire, witnessing through them and to them in advance of the work of Christ.
A Christ-led, Spirit-given understanding of this gospel theme was the core of the prophetic message.
The prophetic message was often a gospel message since it told of the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. The Spirit of Christ witnessed in advance about the sufferings and glories of Christ. The text indicates the prophets studied their own utterances and writings to plumb their depths. Yet according to this text, a Christ-led, Spirit-given understanding of this gospel theme was the core of the prophetic message.
The New Testament serves as the inspired commentary on the Old Testament, and it is an incredible blessing to have this in our hands. However, even before the completion of the New Testament, the Old Testament served as the Scripture for Israel, and it contained a gospel theme concerning the coming, sufferings, and glory of Messiah.
The second text underscoring the gospel theme of the Old Testament was spoken by Jesus Himself.
Then He said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself. (Luke 24:25–27)
Here, Jesus spoke to a pair of His followers on the road to Emmaus. Notice the extent of His teaching. He began with Moses and the Prophets and opened to them in all the Scriptures the things pertaining to Himself, that is, His sufferings and His glory.
Later in the same chapter, Jesus spoke of His presence in the Old Testament Scriptures.
Then He said to them, “These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.” And He opened their understanding, that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, “Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44–47)
This text is loaded with gospel significance given by Jesus to His disciples. He referenced His presence in the Law of Moses, presumably the Pentateuch. He claimed the Prophets testified about Him. He also showed that He could be found in the Psalms. Then Jesus collected these three areas and predicated them under one title—“the Scriptures.” Again, the gospel significance of Old Testament content is remarkable. Central to the Lord’s teaching about Himself in the Scriptures was the necessity of His suffering, His Resurrection, and His call to preach repentance for the remission of sins.
One final text illustrates the gospel theme found in the Old Testament, and it also spoke of things that took place before the Incarnation of Jesus upon this earth.
But those things which God foretold by the mouth of all His prophets, that the Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began. (Acts 3:18–24)
The Apostle Peter preached from Solomon’s Porch and called for the people to repent. He reminded the listening crowd that the suffering, Resurrection, and glory of the Messiah have been the major theme of the Scriptures.
The Scriptures teach that Jesus is its central theme. The primary message of the Bible is about His suffering, death, Resurrection, and glory.
So were there multiple ways of salvation prior to the coming of Jesus in space and time to die as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind? The answer must be a resounding “No.” Paul explained in Romans 4 that salvation has always been and will always be by God’s grace and received through faith alone.
Genesis 3:15 promised that Someone would come to clear up the sin problem created by our first father, Adam. As the Seed of the woman, He would be the one to battle and defeat the serpent. Even Abel understood the nature of a bloody sacrifice and the death of a substitute, and because of his faith in God, he was regarded by God as righteous (Hebrews 11:4).
Thus, saturating all of Scripture, there is a gospel theme that showcases the suffering, Resurrection, and glory of the promised Savior, Jesus Christ. He is the central object of our faith and the fulfillment of all that the faithful who have preceded us down through the ages had believed in.