Since Old Testament people lived long before
how could they be saved?
A good, safe rule of thumb to practice when faced with difficult Bible questions is to always interpret a seemingly vague passage in light of a clear passage related to it.
Ex., on the issue of salvation : Compare Eph. 2:8,9 and Rom.4:1-5 with Phil. 2:12. It is clear salvation is not based on works!
Note Paul's statement on salvation in regards to justification. He says we are justified by faith, Rom. 5:1. He says we are justified by grace, Rom. 3:24. He also says we are justified by Christ's blood. Well, which is it Paul? Paul would say the blood of Christ has always been the basis for every believer's salvation. The grace of God has always been the source of every believer's salvation. Finally Paul would say faith has always been the means for every believer's salvation.
People have always been saved by their faith in God rather than by merit earned through good works ( Hebrews 11:6 ).
Note in Hebrews Heb 4:2:
"For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard."
The Bible is clear that Abraham, father of the Jewish people, was saved by faith. The Scriptures say, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" ( Romans 4:3, Gen. 15:6 ). Although Abraham didnít know the exact way that God would one day provide a Savior, he made a profound statement about Godís ability to provide a substitute as he prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah ( Genesis 22:8 ).
The principle of salvation by faith continued under the Mosaic law. Because no one could perfectly satisfy the lawís demands, the law brought awareness of human sin and helplessness ( Romans 3:9-23; 7:7-14 ; Galatians 3:19-25 ). Its provisions for animal sacrifice were a further revelation of the seriousness and ugliness of sin. But the provision for sacrifice also pointed forward to Calvary and Godís provision of grace. David, who lived under the law 1,000 years before Christ, clearly knew the power of Godís grace, experiencing forgiveness and salvation through faith ( Psalm 32:1-5 ; Romans 4:6-8 ).
Faith in God always involved confidence that God would somehow provide for the forgiveness of sins. Faith always anticipated the coming of Christ and His sacrifice on our behalf. Old Testament believers offered sacrifices as an expression of their faith. By themselves, sacrificial offerings could never take away sin. When they were offered in faith, however, God accepted them because they pointed to Jesus Christ, the one sacrifice worthy to atone for all the sins of the world ( Hebrews 10:1-17 ). Now keep in mind these Old Testament saints did not have the knowledge or revelation we have on this side of the cross.
Regarding Old Testament sacrifices note that while animal sacrifices were prescribed by God, they were never intended to provide eternal salvation. According to the author of Hebrews, "in those sacrifices there was a reminder of sins every year. For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins" (Heb 10:3-4). Animal sacrifices showed the worshipers their need and made them able to approach God. They also pointed ahead to the ultimate sacrifice, the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; 8:56).
While God gave Israel the Law of Moses, it was never designed to provide eternal salvation. "Therefore, by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom 3:20). No one ever gained, or ever will gain, eternal salvation by keeping God's commandments. To break even one command in your entire lifetime is all it takes to stand condemned before God (Jas 2:10). And yet "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).
Scripture accurately interprets itself. Thus the simplest way to explain OT salvation is to go to a passage like Rom 4:1-8. There Paul uses Abraham and David to show that OT people believed in the Messiah for eternal life. They knew salvation was a gift, not a debt. They knew it was by faith alone, apart from their works.
While revelation from God is progressive, reaching its peak with the New Testament scriptures, it has always been, nevertheless, sufficient for salvation of souls at all periods of time.
So as Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum would put it : "If you were a rabbi in Judea in the first century and I asked you how I might obtain eternal life, what Scripture would you show me? In other words, what was the difference between a "believing" and a "non-believing" Jew, both attempting to follow Mosaic Law?"
"The difference between a believing Jew and a non-believing Jew (assuming we are not dealing with idolatry, which was no longer a Jewish problem in the first century B.C.) would be recognizing the true purpose of the Mosaic Law. The believing Jew would put his faith in the God of Israel, trusting Him for his salvation as did Abraham, when God reckoned it to him for righteousness (Gn. 15:6). Once the believing Jew put his faith in the God of Israel, trusting Him alone for salvation, he would then view the Law as a rule of life for one already saved rather than a means of salvation. The unbelieving Jew, however, would view the Law as a means of salvation, thus trusting in his own works. That is why Paul spent so much time in the Book of Romans distinguishing between salvation by works of the Law versus grace through faith. The unbelieving Jew has put his faith in his own works to (try to) earn salvation, whereas the true believer realizes that he can do nothing to commend himself before God, thus resting and relying upon God's mercy."
In conclusion, the means of salvation has always been by faith alone. In the OT the object of faith was always the one true God who progressively revealed more about His Son. In the New Testament church age and Tribulation time it is Jesus Christ. Only the content of that faith varies in different time frames. In what or who has one always had to place their trust? The answer, in God and in His promises or commands he made. This is what is meant by the content of faith. That content of what God asked of those who would be believers before the Law, during the Law, during the church age and during the Tribulation will vary. Today He asks us to believe Him regarding the necessity to put our trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sin. In Abraham's day it was believe God regarding the promises He made. Under the Law is was believe God regarding the need for sacrifices. In the Tribulation it will be believe God regarding the necessity to accept the gospel of the kingdom ( Mt. 24:14 ).
by Dave Smith, D.Min.