How Old Testament saints were saved

by Dr. Andrew Fountain

This article is adapted from a sermon preached to Jarvis Street Baptist Church by Dr. Andrew Fountain.
Many Christians are a little confused about how Old Testament believers were saved. The first problem we have is that in Old Testament times they didn’t know about Jesus’ death on the cross. Yet Acts 4:12, says of Jesus, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” How could people living in Old Testament times be saved if they didn’t know the name of Jesus? The second problem is the place of animal sacrifices. Did those sacrifices take away sin? Were people saved by sacrificing sheep, bulls, and goats?

We will try to deal with these two problems, and the errors we can fall into when trying to understand salvation in the Old Testament. One extreme position says, “In the Old Testament people were saved in a completely different way. Now we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but then, they were saved by the sacrifices.” The other extreme, which we will talk about later, is a failure to distinguish between the outward and the inward in the Old Testament covenants. One view sees no similarity between Old Testament and New Testament ways of salvation, the other view sees no difference between them.

Abraham: “the father of all those who believe”

We are going to look at the example of Abraham as a picture of all Old Testament believers. In Romans 4:11 he is called the father of all those who believe.

We read about two covenants that God made with Abraham. There are some very important differences between them. The first covenant was when he was seventy-five years old and the second covenant was twenty-four years later when he was ninety-nine. Genesis 15:1-8 describes the first covenant.

1 After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your exceedingly great reward.”

2 But Abram said, “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

3 Then Abram said, “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!”

4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”

5 Then he brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”

6 And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him for righteousness.

7 Then he said to him, “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to inherit it.”

8 And he said, “Lord God, how shall I know that I will inherit it?”

The account continues in an extraordinary way: God made a formal covenant with Abraham. In ancient times, one of the common ways of making a covenant was to cut an animal or several animals in two pieces. These pieces would be laid on the ground opposite each other and the two parties would walk between them. The language of the symbol is very, very strong. It is saying, “If I break this covenant then I am willing to be cut in pieces like this animal.” It is not something you do if you intend to break the covenant, because you are really saying “I am willing to be killed if I break it.”

God told Abraham to take a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtledove, and a young pigeon, and to cut these five creatures in two and put them out on the ground. Then a deep sleep fell on him and in a vision he saw God, pictured as a smoking torch, passing between the pieces.

There are two astonishing things about this covenant. First: that God would bind himself in a covenant to a human being and that he would make that kind of promise. In effect God is saying, “May I cease to be God, may I cease to exist just as these animals cease to exist, if I should break this promise with Abraham.” Just as it is impossible for God to cease to exist, so it is impossible for God to break his promises. But the incredible thing is that God should actually say this.

Second: usually in this type of covenant both the parties in the agreement walk between the pieces. If one of them breaks the agreement, then theoretically the other one is given the right to kill them. But in this case only one person, only God symbolized by the smoking torch, goes between the pieces.

The terminology that theologians use for this kind of covenant is “unilateral covenant;” it is one-sided. God had taken the responsibility of keeping this covenant completely on himself; Abraham didn’t have to make any promises to keep the covenant. There was no way that Abraham could actually break the covenant. God was the only one who was required to do anything. In New Testament terms we would say that it was all of grace. All Abraham had to do was believe, and, at this point, he had already believed. Believing, of course, is not a meritorious work, but rather it is trusting God. Using the expression from Romans 4, we will call this the “Covenant of Promise”.

The covenant of circumcision

Twenty-four years later God appeared to Abraham again and made another covenant (Genesis 17.) In Acts 7:8 this is called the “Covenant of Circumcision.” There is a lot of similarity between these two covenants, but the main difference is that the second covenant is not only promised to Abraham, it is also extended to his descendants. However the promise to his descendants has a condition that they had to fulfill in order to remain in the covenant.

Abraham’s descendants had to be circumcised. In v. 14 it says, “The uncircumcised male child who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.” So it was possible to break at least this aspect of the covenant.

Many people would like to lump together both covenants with Abraham, saying that they were the same thing. However, Romans 4 makes a big distinction between them: the first is a free and unconditional promise only requiring faith; the second contains the ceremonial requirement of circumcision which is actually a foreshadowing of the law of Moses that came to its fullness later at Mt. Sinai.

Let us consider what the second covenant, made in Genesis 17:7-8, really means:

7 “And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you.

8 “Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.”

Here a promise was made, and the only condition was circumcision. We therefore have a problem because the Jewish nation have pretty well kept that condition right through to the present day. They may not have kept most of the conditions of the later covenant at Mt. Sinai, but they have kept the command to be circumcised. Yet, they have not always had the land of Canaan for their possession. In fact, even now that some of them are back in the land, it is only a small part of what God promised Abraham. Certainly throughout history, there has been nothing like the eternal possession of the land of Canaan that God promised him. Has God’s promise failed?

To understand this we have to see that there were two aspects to this covenant. As in the later covenant that God gave to the Israelites in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, there was an outward aspect and a spiritual reality. Of course, the outward was to be obeyed; they really were to be circumcised. This outward aspect was designed to point to the spiritual reality of the covenant, which was inward.

It is like a picture. Suppose you are trying to find your way to Riverdale Farm. You may see a sign saying “Riverdale Farm this way,” and stop at the sign saying, “Look, here is the sign. I must be there.” But you aren’t. All you have found is the sign pointing to the farm. You are not there until you actually follow the sign to where it is pointing. It is the same with circumcision and with the covenant with Abraham. There were signs, but you were not there until you followed to where the sign was pointing.

The meaning of circumcision

Outward circumcision was intended to be a picture of circumcision of the heart. Circumcision of the heart is quite simply a willing obedience that trusts in God. The uncircumcised heart is a heart of stone which does not want to obey God, or believe his promises. In contrast, the circumcised heart, sometimes called a “heart of flesh,” is ready and willing to believe and obey. Stephen, in Acts 7, described the Israelites as “you stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears”.

“Stiffnecked” is a picture from an agricultural society where animals such as horses, or donkeys, or oxen were used for plowing and pulling things. A horse has a bridle and a bit in its mouth. When you want it to turn you turn its head by pulling on the reins. The horse should then turn its head and go in the direction you want it to. A stiff-necked animal is the one who will not turn, goes its own way, and keeps its neck stiff. This is a picture of a stubborn person who wants to go their own way and is not willing to submit to God. The uncircumcised person is someone who is stiff-necked and stubborn and wants to go his own way. On the other hand, someone who has a circumcised heart is obedient. They are submissive and willing, they trust the Lord like an obedient animal, trusting its master.

This is spelled out many times in the Old Testament . They did not have to guess what circumcision symbolized because God told them many times. For example, in Ezekiel 36:26, God says to them “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” He goes on to explain in v. 27: “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will keep my judgments and do them.”

So Ezekiel equates this circumcised heart to having the Spirit within us. God will put his Spirit within us. This idea of an obedient, regenerated heart is even clearer when we look at Romans 2:25. Paul explains: “For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision.”

Here you can see that if you are disobedient, it is the same as being uncircumcised. Therefore if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, his uncircumcision will be counted as if he were circumcised! So the important thing is not whether you are physically circumcised or not, but the inward act, which is obedience.

Paul goes on in v. 27: “And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law?” And here is the climax in vv. 28-29: “For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.”

This circumcision of the heart is performed by the Spirit who gives us a new heart. There is another more familiar name for this: “born again.” Being born again of the Spirit is the same thing as having a circumcised heart, a new heart of flesh. Real circumcision is the same thing as being born again.

Returning to the promise to Abraham, we can ask, “Who does this promise apply to?” It applies to all those who are born again. Everybody who has a new heart, a circumcised heart, fulfills this covenant and is part of the offspring promised to Abraham. It is not the Jewish nation, but everyone who is born again, both Jew and gentile, who inherit this promise. The result of the outward aspect of the promise may have been a physical nation, but the fulfillment of the inward aspect of the promise is a spiritual nation: those who are born again, who have a new heart given to them by the Holy Spirit.

We can see exactly the same idea in Galatians 5:6. “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.” What was it that Abraham had that God counted for righteousness? It was faith. Here Paul is saying “Circumcision is merely a picture of faith, the faith that works itself out in producing a loving and obedient heart.” Then in chapter 6:15 he says, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision or uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.” What is the new creation? We know there will be new heavens and a new earth one day, but the new creation has started now; it has begun in our hearts. Everyone who is a Christian is a new creature in Christ Jesus because the new birth has occurred in our hearts.

Nicodemus should have known about this. In John 3 Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You must be born again.” When Nicodemus doesn’t understand, Jesus says, “Are you a teacher in Israel and you don’t know these things? You have never read Jeremiah and Ezekiel? Don’t you know the difference between an uncircumcised and a circumcised heart? Don’t you know about this new birth through the Spirit?” Nicodemus should have understood these things because they are taught in the Old Testament. Although they were in picture language to start with, they were explained. It wasn’t long before God was explaining very clearly what he meant by their hearts being circumcised or uncircumcised.

God made a covenant with Abraham together with all those after him who are his spiritual children. These are the ones who believe in the way that he believed, who have been given a new heart. That is why Abraham can be called the father of all who believe.

How much did these Old Testament saints really understand? They must have had some difficulty in coming to a full understanding of what was entailed in their salvation. Our understanding of Old Testament teaching is enlightened by the commentary of New Testament writers. Abraham clearly knew that there was more than the physical reality. We know he looked beyond the literal promises because Hebrews 11:9 says of him, “By faith he dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise; for he waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” He knew that there was a coming city, a new Jerusalem. The land in which he dwelt physically, the land of Canaan, was not the fulfillment of the promise—there was something more in the future. Abraham knew that he should look beyond the sign, to the future.

To summarize, there were two aspects to the promise to Abraham: the outward and the inward. The outward was temporary; it lasted until the time of Christ and then fell away. The inward aspect of the promise is everlasting.

I don’t want to offend any non-Baptist readers, but those who believe in infant baptism have a problem here. They confuse the sign with the reality. They look at the promise in the time of Moses, which says “This promise is to you and your children and your children’s children,” and they say “Well, if we are Christians the promise must be to us and to our children.” What they don’t understand is that the external promise to the external children was a picture of a spiritual promise to spiritual children. When Paul talks about his children, who is he talking about? Those he had led to the Lord are his spiritual children, and, in the same way, all who believe can be described as the spiritual children of Abraham.

What did Old Testament believers actually have to do to be saved?

If Old Testament believers didn’t know the Name of Jesus, what was required of them to be saved? What Abraham did was to cast himself totally on the Lord and trust him. He did not know how God was going to save him, but he trusted that God would find a way. We know now that the way that God found to save Abraham was through Jesus Christ and His death and resurrection. However, Abraham did not know that, he just trusted blindly that God would find a way. The important thing is that the faith he had is the same faith as ours. We may have more knowledge now about how faith works, but still the core of our faith today is coming to God as our only hope and looking to him for shelter.

In Isaiah 32:2, God is described as a hiding place from the wind and a cover from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as a shadow of a great rock in a weary land. Those are wonderful words, and they perfectly describe the faith of an Old Testament believer. God was for them a hiding place from the wind, a cover from the tempest, and a refuge. Their faith is the same as our faith. We now know it is Christ who provides that shelter. Nevertheless, at that time they were looking for a shelter in the same way. Anyone who cried out to God for shelter and came to him in Old Testament times would be saved. When we come to him for shelter from the storm, he will never turn us away. He has made provision through his Son Jesus. They didn’t know the details then, but all they had to know was that God was merciful and if they cast themselves on him then he would show mercy. Jesus says, “Come to Me, all you who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That is what Abraham did. He came to God and demonstrated his faith by following God’s commands, and God gave him rest.

How did it work after Moses gave the law?

After Moses had given the law, the Israelite nation had the sacrificial system to follow. Did the sacrifices really save them? Did killing all of those bulls and sheep really wash their sins away? In Hebrews 10:4 we read, “For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.”

That is pretty clear, isn’t it! All the blood that was shed didn’t take away a single sin! It was only a picture of salvation in Jesus Christ. So could a true believer in the time of Moses ignore the sacrifices? No they could not because they were commanded to sacrifice, and because it was part of what God commanded them they had to do it in obedience. They might not have understood exactly what was going on, but in Hebrews 4 we are told that their obedience had to be mixed with faith for it to be effective. If they just killed the animal and said “Well, that’s done with,” then it would not have done any good. But if, when the animal was killed, they trusted that somehow God would provide a way, not because of anything that they had done but because they were casting themselves on Him, then they would be saved.

Unfortunately though, this wasn’t the case with most of the Israelites. They came out of Egypt and when it was time to go into the promised land they didn’t trust in God and his promises. They said “The giants of the land are too great for us,” and so virtually every one of them died in the wilderness. Were their sins forgiven? No, because they didn’t have faith. In fact, the vast majority of Israel from their inception through to the time of Christ were not saved; only a small remnant were ever saved because they were the only ones who had true faith. Sacrifices divorced from faith couldn’t save them because they were only a picture or a pointer to God.

The application to us

Do you have an Abraham-type faith? Paul gives a beautiful description in Romans 4 of what Abraham’s faith was like. In Romans 4:19-21 he says about Abraham, “Not being weak in faith, he did not consider his own body, already dead (since he was about a hundred years old), and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. He did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and being fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform.”

So Abraham’s faith was taking God at his word and believing he could make the dead alive. It was not a person who was “dead” but he and his wife’s childbearing capability. His wife, Sarah, was barren and had never had children. Yet Abraham believed that God could somehow bring life out of that deadness. He simply trusted God and took Him at his word.

What Paul does next is to draw a straight line from Abraham’s belief to our belief. He says that when we believe in the death and resurrection of Christ, that God made Jesus alive and can make us alive, we have the same faith as Abraham. Do you see the picture? We are also believing that God can make the dead alive. In Romans 4:22-25, Paul writes, “And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.”

Paul’s argument is that we who believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, that he died for our sins and was raised for our justification, have the same belief that Abraham had. Now, of course, Abraham did not know about Jesus, but we have to have the same trust in God and cast ourselves on him believing that he will raise us up. If you are not a Christian, there is no great, marvellous, incredible thing that you have to do to become one. All you have to do is trust God and say to him, “I can’t do anything myself. I just want to trust that you will be my shelter, and you will provide a way for me. You will deal with my sins. I don’t understand all the theological details of the atonement, exactly how Jesus Christ redeemed me, but I just know that you provided for me. I am trusting in you and not in myself, because you are the one who can do the impossible. You did the impossible with Abraham. You did the impossible by raising Jesus from the dead.” God never turns away any who come to him asking him to forgive them and casting themselves on his mercy. Jesus says, “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

The opposite of having faith in Christ is being stiff-necked and not wanting Christ’s lordship. It is saying, “God, I want to live my own life. I want to go my own way. I want to be master of my own destiny.”

How does this salvation teaching affect those of us who are believers? It is the most wonderful news that we could hear because our salvation is secure in what God has done for us! He has paid the price. We don’t have to earn anything. We Christians can sometimes slip back into trying to earn our salvation. We somehow think that God is not pleased with us anymore, and that we are not doing enough to please Him. We forget that we don’t have to earn favour with him; we have favour with God through Jesus Christ. Every time we come to him in prayer his smile is upon us because of what Jesus has done for us. Every time we sin, it is forgiven. Isn’t that wonderful? Forgiveness. Isn’t that a beautiful word? Our sin is gone, it is forgiven, it is cleansed, it is washed away in Jesus Christ.

You may ask, “Don’t I have to bring forth fruit?” You are right, you do, but that is the other side of the coin. When you are born again and have a circumcised heart and the Spirit living in you, the Spirit will bring forth fruit. The sign that someone has a new heart is the fruit of obedience and the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, and rest. Fruit is not something that you have to try to work up but is something that the new life in you will produce. The fruit doesn’t save you, but it shows that you are saved and that you are a new creation in Christ.

The only time we have to worry is if there is no fruit in our lives. Then we have to question whether we are saved in the first place because lack of fruit might be a sign that our hearts are uncircumcised and made of stone. We are stiff necked if we don’t have willing, submissive obedience to Jesus as our Lord. But even when we do have fruit, it is the Holy Spirit himself who produces it in us, so it cannot give us merit. So fruit does not in any way earn our salvation, or even favour with God. Even the smile that God has for us when we come to him in prayer is because of what he has done for us in Jesus.

It is a promise that can never be broken without God destroying himself. We have the same covenant that God made with Abraham. God cannot break it without destroying himself because he has promised and he will never break his word. There is nothing to fear. The law has no power over us because Jesus has satisfied its every requirement. Is not this the loveliest thing we could ever think about, that we are forgiven and that it is all by grace? May we never forget it. May we never slip into trying to earn our way with God, but may we bring forth the fruit of a new life, a new creation which the Spirit has made in us, through Jesus Christ.