Were Old Testament People Saved? – Examining the Biblical Narrative, Part 1


(Warning: This is going to be a long post and I’ve already split it into parts. It is such an important and broad topic that in order to maintain the thought, there’s no easy way to split it up further. So grab something warm to drink, a snack, and settle in! I’ll try to make it as painless as possible.)

One of the more common questions and misunderstandings that I encounter on a regular basis concerns the salvation of those who lived in the Old Testament, i.e., those who lived and died prior to Christ’s death on the cross. Were any of them saved? If so, how and when were they saved? If not, what are we to make of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not to mention Moses, Joshua, and David? Likewise, what about John the Baptist or the Apostles themselves? Were they saved prior to Christ’s death or subsequent to His resurrection or perhaps not until Pentecost, if at all?

Much of this confusion and controversy comes from the proliferation of dispensational theology that swept through England in the late 19th century and was fertilized by the fundamentalist movement of the United States in the early 20th century. I’ve introduced Dispensational Theology here, with a partial critique. I still hold out hope that I’ll one day have time to interact more with dispensationalism, particularly how the system interprets Scripture and arrives at some of their last days (eschatology) beliefs.

If you haven’t the time to read that post or are unfamiliar with the doctrines that this system proposes, then you should at least know that at its root dispensationalism drives a wedge between the Old and New Testaments which in turn affects how salvation in the Old Testament (Israel) and salvation in the New Testament (the Church) is viewed. This is often referred to as discontinuity between the testaments. Granted, this view has migrated since its early days and has settled into a more progressive form of dispensationalism which still maintains a division between and Israel and the Church, but has abandoned any thoughts of two separate ways of salvation.

Which brings us to the purpose of this post. Much like a surgical scar, dispensationalism has left an indelible mark on Christianity in America. Most church-goers these days have dispensational beliefs without ever knowing where they came from or what they are called, let alone the Scriptural basis for them. In this way, dispensationalism has become the default tradition for many. It’s likely, particularly in the old “Bible Belt” of America, that one has been influenced by dispensationalism without ever knowing it.  We must lay down our traditions and pick up our Bibles to find out what God’s Word has to say about salvation in the Old Testament.

In order to speak to this, no argument from silence will suffice. We must examine Scripture to see what, if anything, it has to say about the salvation of Old Testament saints. Any discussion of the Old Testament understanding of the Gospel must begin where Scripture begins, with an implicit announcement of the Gospel as found in Genesis 3:15

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” Genesis 3:15

This passage is often referred to as the protoevangelion, or first gospel. If this is true, and the gospel is present in this passage from Genesis, then is faith in this promise of the gospel sufficient for salvation? Could an evangelist in that day have simply said, “Believe in the Gospel and be saved?” Likewise, what are we to make of this Promised Seed[1] or Offspring? Whoever it may be, revealed only in this promise thus far, it is clear that Eve embraced the promise of God through the expected arrival of Cain[2]. As pointed out in more detail from this post The Gospel Hope of Eve, The evidences suggests that Eve had an expected fulfillment of God’s promise, i.e. faith in the Promised Seed of God.  Her faith was seemingly not void simply because she expected Seth to be the fulfillment of that promise, as the would-be skull crushing seed.  Her faith was still in the promise of God’s Seed. Though it may not have been as clearly revealed yet who that Person may have been, faith in the substance of that promise was still in effect.

The Promised Seed comes on the scene again by the time we reach Noah in chapter 5 of Genesis. Here we find an expectation for the arrival of this Promised Seed, though this time the hope for fulfillment looks towards the birth of Noah. For the expectation of hope that Noah’s father, Lamech, had in this Promised Seed, see The Gospel Hope of Lamech. After obeying God and experiencing His merciful deliverance from judgment, Noah is given the details of the covenant that God makes with him, commonly referred to as the Noahic Covenant.

8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, 9 “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, 15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” 17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” Genesis 9:8-17 (emphasis mine)

With this covenant, God has insured that His Promised Seed will be protected, given a seminal line through which to proceed, lest the promise of Genesis 3:15 fail.

Just 3 chapters later, we encounter a man named Abram (who interestingly proceeded through the line of Noah’s blessed son Shem see Gen. 9:26-27; 10:21-31; 11:10-26). Here we are given a fuller picture of this Promised Seed through the Abrahamic Covenant, the divine promises given to Abraham by God.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:1-3

“Then the Lord appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land…” Genesis 12:7

“The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward, 15 for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. 16 I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. 17 Arise, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” Genesis 13:14-17

“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[b] 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.” Genesis 15:3-6

“13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” Genesis 15:13-14

“On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, 19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, 20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” Genesis 15:18-20

“And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. 8 And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” Genesis 17:7-8

“And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.” Genesis 17:9

“God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.” Genesis 17:19

“15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his[d] enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” Genesis 22:15-18

As the promises of this Abrahamic Covenant are restated and reemphasized from Genesis 12 through Genesis 22 we can begin to see how the lens comes more into focus. The seed promised in the garden, carried along in the flood of judgment, given a covenant of preservation has now been given a familial line and promised the land in which it will grow roots and begin to bring forth fruit. These promises are reiterated to the “offspring” of Abraham, namely Isaac, then Jacob.

By the time we come to Moses in the book of Exodus, the sons of Jacob have settled in the land of Egypt and have become numerous.  At the command of God, Moses leads the burgeoning nation out of slavery and headed toward the land promised in the Abrahamic Covenant.  The familial line of the Promised Seed has now become a nation, whom God declares to be a royal people and a holy nation.  In order to structure the formation of this new nation, God provides them with moral, civil, and ceremonial guidelines and enters into a covenant with them, known as the Mosaic Covenant, sometimes called the Sinaitic Covenant.

To this point in the biblical account of redemptive history, Moses has been the human author of the first five books of the Bible (or Torah in the Hebrew Bible). So we can conclude that he at least has a broad exposure to this concept of seed and through divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit has written extensively about it. Note what he writes for us in Numbers 24 (see also ch. 23) the oracles of Balaam which includes an interesting reference

“The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened, 4 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 5 How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel! 6 Like palm groves[b] that stretch afar, like gardens beside a river, like aloes that the Lord has planted, like cedar trees beside the waters. 7 Water shall flow from his buckets, and his seed shall be in many waters; his king shall be higher than Agag, and his kingdom shall be exalted. 8 God brings him out of Egypt and is for him like the horns of the wild ox; he shall eat up the nations, his adversaries, and shall break their bones in pieces and pierce them through with his arrows.9 He crouched, he lay down like a lion and like a lioness; who will rouse him up? Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you.” 15 And he took up his discourse and said, “The oracle of Balaam the son of Beor, the oracle of the man whose eye is opened,16 the oracle of him who hears the words of God, and knows the knowledge of the Most High, who sees the vision of the Almighty, falling down with his eyes uncovered: 17 I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth. 18 Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed. Israel is doing valiantly. 19 And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion and destroy the survivors of cities!”

Balaam’s oracle clearly has an expectation for the arrival of a sovereign king, while verse 9, “Blessed are those who bless you, and cursed are those who curse you” calls to mind the promise of the Abrahamic Covenant given in Genesis 12:3. In verse 17 we should recall the blessing of Jacob to his son Judah as recorded in Genesis 49, while the prophecy to “crush the forehead of Moab” is a clear reference to the language of Genesis 3:15, specifically the skull-crushing seed, here spoken of as a star from Jacob and a scepter rising out of Israel. Moses, writing the inspired words of the Torah in recording the God-given oracle to Balaam, records God’s consolidation of the promise given in Genesis 3 with the promise given through the Abrahamic Covenant and focused in the blessing of Jacob to his son Judah, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him; and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” Genesis 49:10

Fast forward through redemptive history to the theocracy of Israel and we arrive at the anointing of King David. The Promised Seed is again mentioned in the Davidic Covenant of 2 Samuel 7:8-17

“8 Now, therefore, thus you shall say to my servant David, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince[a] over my people Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” 17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.”

Here, we find that the royalty of the Promised Offspring which was spoken of to Abraham (Gen. 12) and by Jacob (Gen 49), and alluded to by Moses (Numbers 24), is now clearly seen to come from the lineage of David. In the immediate context we may conclude that this is a reference to Solomon who would build God a physical house, the temple. However, 2 clues in this passage show that while Solomon may have at least been in view in the near context, the far context points beyond him. First is the statement by God that He would build David a “house” in verse 11 (an additional note is the promise of rest, surely recalling Genesis 1 and calling forward to several passages from Hebrews and the eschatological rest of God). The reference of house here is not a reference to a physical dwelling place, but is instead a royal house, a lineage, and what will ultimately be a spiritual house. How do we know this? Our first clue may be that David already had a house, 2 Sam. 7:1, and that there is no recorded biblical evidence that God built David a separate physical, material house to live in. When we arrive at verse 13, “He shall build a house for my name” we must at least have this understanding of house in mind, especially since God says the house will be for His Name. However, as mentioned earlier, we do know that it was Solomon that built the temple, commonly called the House of God. Secondly, the kingdom promised to David’s offspring is perpetual, “I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” Not only was Solomon’s reign brief by dynastic standards, since it split due to the infidelity of his father and his own shortcomings, but the throne of David had no earthly descendents after the exile of Jehoiachin in the 5th century BC (see Ezekiel 1:2). A compelling argument could be made that David on some level grasps this. Note the following Psalm

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Psalm 110:1

David sees the enthronement of another King and it’s not himself or Solomon, but one whom he references as Lord, a point that we will clarify as we examine the New Testament in the next post.

These promises often in the form of covenants (prophecies and promises also) given in the Old Testament, though distinct in some ways, still have as their substance the Promised Seed of God. Is faith in this Promised Seed misplaced faith? Is it insufficient faith? Is it a faith that brings about salvation from sins and life everlasting with God in heaven?  In the next post, we will examine passages from the New Testament to see if they help illumine our discussion here and answer some of the questions regarding salvation in the Old Testament.


[1] Some have rightly concluded that this “seed” can be plural or referring to an individual; A similar wording in English would be sheep, deer, or fish with the same word is used in both the singular and the plural. See T.D. Alexander From Eden to the New Jerusalem footnote on pg 105. For a more in-depth discussion on the seed, see Hamilton http://www.sbts.edu/resources/files/2010/07/sbjt_102_sum06-hamilton.pdf . Note also the interplay of singular and plural in Genesis 22.

[2] This is clear evidence that the expectation of the seed was a singular individual, not a plurality.