Were the Old Testament People Saved? – The Witness of Romans 4


If you were able to watch the video I posted a couple weeks ago, which attempted to answer the question of salvation prior to Christ’s death, then you know that the theologian in the video dismissed any notion of Abraham’s salvation citing Genesis 15 and referencing Paul’s use of this passage in Romans 4 as simply an illustration, “In the same way God made a promise to Abraham He makes a promise to us.” But is that Paul’s (and ultimately the Divine Author’s) purpose in citing Abraham in Romans 4?

Let’s examine the context.

After the Apostle Paul’s introduction and brief prologue concerning the power of the Gospel for salvation to both Jew and Greek, the book of Romans begins with a general condemnation of the non-Jewish world, commonly called Gentiles or Greeks (though perhaps more helpfully known as the nations or pagans) for their vile sins and idolatries committed against a Holy God.

As Paul transitions into chapter 2, the focus shifts from the pagan world to those who had experienced the privileges and blessings of God, commonly identified as the Jews. Woven throughout chapter 2 is condemnation of the Jewish world with an eye still toward the pagan world before bringing them both under condemnation of God’s wrath for their sins in chapter 3 of Romans. Note the following verses:

What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11     no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14     “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16     in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18     “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Romans 3:9-18

With both Jews and Gentiles under the condemnation of God for their sins, it therefore begs the question how can anyone be saved? Paul provides the answer as he shifts to faith in Christ as the basis for justification, not the law.

21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Romans 3:21-26

Verse 22 sets forth the thesis that the Old Testament, here summarized as the Law and the Prophets, bears witness to gospel of Jesus Christ, namely “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe” and that redemption through the blood of Jesus Christ is by faith alone. This really sets the groundwork for Chapter 4.

Important in our discussion of Abraham, and Old Testament salvation in general, is the placement of verse 25, “because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” These former sins, or perhaps more importantly those who were guilty of these sins, were those under the Old Covenant, prior to Christ just as is seen in Hebrews 9:15. There they are identified as the called, lest there be any notion of Old Covenant universalism.  God then becomes just and the justifier of the one who has faith, even in Old Testament times!

At the conclusion of chapter 3, the Apostle sets forth God as the God of both Jew and Gentile, uniting them together in Him and showing that it is by faith and not adherence to the law, namely via circumcision, that one is justified. This is the background and context for Chapter 4, which begins with an introduction of Abraham within the context of justification by faith, not on the basis of adherence to the law.

The introduction here of Abraham cannot be understated. He stands as the patriarch of Israel and is the physical father of the Jewish people; though as Paul asserts in his epistle to the Church at Galatia and here in this chapter, he is the father of the spiritual people who are in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:29).

We have already seen that Romans 2 supports this notion by saying, “25 For circumcision indeed is of value if you obey the law, but if you break the law, your circumcision becomes uncircumcision. 26 So, if a man who is uncircumcised keeps the precepts of the law, will not his uncircumcision be regarded as circumcision? 27 Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. 28 For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. 29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”

This passage really serves as a prelude to the ensuing discussion in Chapter 4 regarding Abraham because any understanding of the relationship between circumcision, obedience, and faith must begin with Abraham and this is precisely what the Apostle does.

“What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather 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 counted to him as righteousness.’” (Romans 4:1-3) Notice that verse 3 cites Genesis 15:6, the verse that’s in question from the aforementioned video and the basis for our understanding of whether Abraham was saved or not.

Remember that in the video, the objection was that Abraham is not exercising belief in God or belief that God exists, because he already had that according to Dr. White, and that his justification here is generic and has nothing to do with being restored into a right relationship with God. Is it as Dr. Randy White has posited? Namely that Abraham is just used as an example of how we should believe in God’s promises. In other words, is Abraham merely a pattern for our good, moral obedience? OR is there something far more being asserted here, perhaps a theological foundation for understanding how one is justified (being brought into a right relationship with God) on the basis of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (A phrase Dr. White explicitly denounced) apart from works of the law. That last phrase CANNOT be understated because it is critical to our understanding of salvation in the Old Testament.

Again, not to pick on Dr. White, but he is representative of the view that asserts that salvation in the Old Testament required something more than just believing, as he clearly stated in the video. His particular view, that of classic dispensationalism as he self-identified, sees salvation in the Old Testament (if we can even squeeze that out of him) as reliant upon obedience to the law. That is precisely contrary to what the Apostle Paul is saying in Romans 4. Below is the remainder of the chapter (in italics) with my comments interspersed in bolded blue:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

We have to fundamentally understand Paul is saying that for the one who works, i.e. obeys the law in the hopes of being justified, his wages (what he earns) are not a gift, but requires payment because salvation cannot be earned. In clear terms, the more you work, the more you owe.

Secondly, note the contrast with the “one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly”. Clearly then justification (for sake of clarity – salvation) is on the basis of faith ALONE, not on the basis of obedience to the law. Finally, note that the one who believes, “his faith is counted as righteousness.” Who was the prototypical example of this? Abraham! Paul’s argument is that believers today are justified on the basis of faith in the exact same way that Abraham was.

The word counted, used both in verse 3 (the Genesis quotation) and here in verse 5 is better translated imputed or credited. It carries with it the idea of a financial transaction, a ledger book if you will. On the basis of faith, righteousness is therefore “credited” to the account of the believer. Though developed more in the discussion below, this idea of imputation is particularly addressed in chapter 5 of Romans.

It’s important to note here that faith does not merit righteousness, but as has been seen in Chapter 3, the object of faith is Christ and it is His righteousness that is credited to the believer. In this way, it is an alien righteousness, as Luther so famously expressed it. Paul next moves from his example of Abraham’s justification by faith alone, which he concludes is likewise true of all believers, to King David.

just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered;
blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”

Again, the point is proven, though this time with David the argument is made on the negative side of imputation. David here is said to have spoken of the “one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works”, so this is Paul’s argument restated but the answer from Psalm 32:1-2 is on the negative side of imputation, particularly in regards to sin. He states blessed are those who lawless deeds (sin – 1 John 3:4) are forgiven, those whose sins are covered, the man whom the Lord will not count (impute) his sin. Further discussion on this can be found in Romans 5 where we see the sins of the believer are imputed to Christ, but the clear implication is that God does not count/impute/credit sin to the believer, but does count/impute/credit righteousness of Christ to the one who has faith.

The argument next returns back to discussion of circumcision, as representative of the law, by again looking to Abraham.

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.

Here, Paul returns again to his discussion on Jew/Gentiles and advances it on the basis of circumcision/uncircumcision by asking the question of whether the blessing of righteousness is counted to the former only? He answers again with Abraham and concludes that his justification occurred in Genesis 15, prior to his circumcision which came later in Genesis 17. The obedience that he exhibited in circumcision was a seal of the “righteousness that he had by faith” prior to his circumcision. Similarly, baptism is a step of obedience reflecting the righteousness that believers today have. Now, should there be any discussion on the viability of paedobaptism, that path is cut off by verse 11b, “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.” Abraham is the father of believers, not believers and their children. The continuation of the trail blazed by the imputation of righteousness to Abraham flows directly to all believers who are likewise shown to be justified by faith alone apart from works of the law. Abraham is not merely a moral example of obedience, but the pattern of justification by faith alone throughout redemptive history.

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.

Note here that Abraham’s offspring is comprised of both Jew AND Gentile, both the circumcised (who walk by faith as he did) and the uncircumcised who believe likewise.

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.

As the Apostle concludes this section, it is clear that the same faith that saved Abraham (and David!), saves us today. The same righteousness (which is Christ’s as we read in Romans 3 & 5) was credited to Abraham as believers today. His faith did not merit righteousness, though Abraham was saved and his salvation was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. He believed in the promise, we believe in the fulfillment of that same promise.

Perhaps without even knowing it, the views expressed in the video mentioned above undermines the entire basis for the Reformation and the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Sola Fide).  It is clear that the argument of Abraham here is not made as a pattern for our moral behavior to exhort us to believe the promises of God, but is instead to show the prototype for justification by faith alone apart from works of the law. Should we exhibit faith like Abraham did?  Absolutely, but as has been shown, this is not the central purpose for writing Romans 4.

Salvation in the Old Testament, on the basis of the truths set forth by the Apostle Paul under divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, was exactly the same as it is now. By grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. There is simply no room for disagreement on the issue, lest we subvert the glory of the Gospel and create a path for more than one way of salvation.

About the author

Christian saved by grace through faith.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.