In two of the more recent posts, we’ve looked at significant Old Testament figures and their hope in the coming of The Redeemer. It is by faith that they embrace this hope in a forward-looking faith as they awaited the fulfillment of God’s promise. Though an argument from silence, it would not be difficult to reach the conclusion that these two individuals, Eve and Lamech, were saved. We move now to a third example of salvation from the OT, one much more explicit and much more foundational to our understanding of salvation in the OT.
In Genesis 11, we are introduced to the man Abram and his wife Sarai. Abram was called by God to move his family to a land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1) and along his journey we see God unfolding the Abrahamic Covenant while simultaneously pointing forward to the New Covenant (far too much to cover in this post, see Genesis 12:7; Gen. 15; 17:1-14, 19; 22:12-18 ). In Genesis 15:1-6 we read
“After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” 2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” 4 And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
The context for this passage is the promise of a son to Abraham who would be his heir and provide the lineage for the Messiah who would fulfill God’s covenant in an ultimate sense, literally an innumerable offspring for all those who are “in Christ” (another lengthy post for later). Abraham’s response is that “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This may be a familiar verse upon first reading. It may be one that you’ve read over time and again, and perhaps like I have, taken it for granted. However, it’s central to our understanding of salvation in the Old Testament because the Apostle Paul references this passage in Romans 4 and follows up in chapter 5 with a significant doctrinal statement. Read carefully the following:
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
9 Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
13 For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. 15 For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.
16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 18 In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.” 19 He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. 20 No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. 22 That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.” 23 But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
The context for this passage is the justification of Abraham by faith. Subsequently, Paul is laying the foundation for understanding the salvation of all believers, not simply those in the New Testament, which is why he chooses the Patriarch of Israel to destroy any notion of a second way of salvation for Jews versus Gentiles. Romans 4:3 is a direct reference to our passage from Genesis 15:6. Notice how Paul expands this idea of Abraham’s justification by faith to include a contrast between “the one who works” and “the one who does not work but believes in him” to show that this concept of salvation by faith alone is not limited to Abraham, but is a paradigm for all salvation.
The phrase coincident to our passage from Genesis 15 and this passage from Romans 4 is that Abraham’s faith was “counted to him as righteousness”. What does this mean? There are a couple of ways to approach this answer, the first is that “counted” is better translated “imputed”. If fact, I’m disappointed with the ESV translation here. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is a massive concept in Scripture and “counted” fails to adequately convey this thought. The NKJV follows suit with “accounted” while the NASB is slightly better with “credited”. Secondly, I prefer the word imputed (or even reckon) here, but I understand the NASB’s reason for their choice because the idea being conveyed is that on God’s accounting ledger of justice the “debits”, i.e. sins of a sinner, are cleared upon their repentance while simultaneously Christ’s righteousness is “credited”, i.e. imputed or reckoned, to the sinner upon their profession of faith in Him (an oversimplification of the necessity of both repentance and faith). The Apostle Paul builds upon this doctrine of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in Romans 5, particularly in verses 12-21. In this passage we can see the Apostle outlining clearly the “imputation” of Adam’s sin and guilt to his posterity contrasted with the “imputation” of Christ’s righteousness to His posterity, or all those who are united with Him, namely believers.
Simply stated, because of Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s law, He has fulfilled the righteous requirements of the law. Adam in his disobedience had the guilt from his original sin “imputed” to all mankind. Subsequently all mankind, fallen in Adam, has failed to meet God’s righteous requirements set forth in His law. Therefore, we are in need of a righteousness from outside ourselves, namely the righteousness of Christ. His righteousness, not our own, is credited to us upon our salvation resulting in our justification before God.
Now you may be asking what does any of this have to do with Abraham, let alone salvation in the Old Testament. I think we now have sufficient evidence to set forth clearly the passage from Genesis 15:6 where Moses, writing about Abraham 2000 years before the birth of Christ, writes an explicit statement about Christ’s righteousness being imputed to Abraham by faith. Let that sink in for a minute before you ask how can this be? How can Abraham, 2000 years before Christ even set foot on the earth possibly be declared justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ, “he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness”. Answer: Abraham was justified by a faith that looked forward, believing the promise of God; a forward looking faith that ultimately reached its destination in the finished work of Christ (be reminded also of Hebrews 11:8-12; James 2:14-26). He was justified, i.e. saved, by faith through the grace of God and the righteousness that comes from Christ alone was imputed to him. Salvation in the Old Testament is perfectly consistent with salvation in the New Testament. God has 1 people and 1 plan to redeem them, His Son Jesus Christ.