If the Bible says that salvation is only in Christ, then how were the Old Testament saints saved since they were before Christ?
This is a common question and a very valid one. It is commonly taught that the Old Testament saints were under a different dispensation and therefore were saved under the Old Testament law rather than New Testament grace. As we will see from scripture, this is not the case at all. The Old Testament saints were saved just as we are today. One of the primary principles of scripture is that God does not change. God did not change His plan half-way through history and try something new. It may be a new revelation to man, but the plan of God has always been the same. The Bible tells us that we were redeemed in Christ before the foundation of the world. The law and works does not redeem anyone, nor has it ever redeemed anyone. Romans 3 tells us the purpose of the law:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
20 Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
The primary purpose of the law in the Old Testament was to show the world that they were guilty before God and how it is impossible to keep the law – and even if you could, it still would not justify a single person. The law opens our eyes by showing us the knowledge of sin. The law does keep us civilized, but its primary purpose is to open our eyes to sin.
The Old Testament saints were not saved by keeping the law nor were they saved by the sacrifices they performed. The Bible tells us that the sacrifice was a yearly reminder of sin and that it foreshadowed the true sacrifice that was to come in Jesus Christ. The Old Testament saints were saved by faith just as we are. They had faith in the coming Messiah that was yet to be revealed; we have faith in the Messiah who has been revealed – Jesus Christ. There were many wicked men who kept the sacrifices of the Old Testament, yet they will not have salvation. In salvation, faith always comes first and then works follow. Works are the evidence of faith but works never produce faith.
Abraham is the father of faith and he is the father of the Old Testament saints. Romans 4 says:
3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”
4 Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.
5 But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,
6 just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works:
New Testament faith reference the Old Testament Abraham as our example of saving faith in Christ. Abraham’s righteousness did not come from a bull sacrificed on an altar. As I previously mentioned, the sacrificed only served to foreshadow the coming sacrifice God would provide for Himself. Look at Hebrews 10:
1 For the law, having a shadow of the good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with these same sacrifices, which they offer continually year by year, make those who approach perfect.
2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered? For the worshipers, once purified, would have had no more consciousness of sins.
3 But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year.
4 For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins.
5 Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, But a body You have prepared for Me.
6 In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure.
7 Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come — In the volume of the book it is written of Me — To do Your will, O God.’ “
8 Previously saying, “Sacrifice and offering, burnt offerings, and offerings for sin You did not desire, nor had pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the law),
9 then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God.” He takes away the first that He may establish the second.
10 By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
11 And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.
12 But this Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God,
The Bible makes it clear that it is IMPOSSIBLE for the Old Testament sacrifices to take away sins. The yearly sacrifice was a continuous reminder of the presence of sin so the people would not forget and it was a foreshadow that pointed ahead to the sacrifice that Jesus would one day make. Those who obeyed the law as an act of faith, were justified in Christ by their faith in God’s plan of redemption. Those who had no faith only performed a ritual that had zero eternal benefit. Many kept the law out of a fear of consequences so they would not be cut off from their people (which was God’s warning), but fearing judgment does not save them anymore than scaring people with hell today. There is a place for explaining the consequence of hell, but no one is saved by running away from hell. The Bible says that it is the goodness of God that leads you to repentance. We have faith and turn to a loving relationship with God that is offered through the cross.
So we can see from scripture that both the Old and New Testament saints obtain salvation through the completed work of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.