Prior to the fall (Genesis 3:7), salvation was by perfect obedience to the law. However, this was not really salvation as there was no sin until the fall. In other words, Adam and Eve did not need to be saved from the penalty of sin. After the fall, salvation by God became necessary. The same standard applies today (New Testament) as it did in the Old Testament. God has not lowered His standard in that only those who are blameless can enter into his presence. Since man cannot measure up to perfection or blamelessness, God has had to fulfill His standard for us which is through the life and death of Jesus who is our substitute. The standard for both the Old and New Testament people to receive salvation is through faith. We receive the righteousness of Christ while He receives our guilt. He receives our punishment on the cross for us. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” (2 Corinthians 5:21). There is no other way to salvation except through Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). This is applicable from the first sin (Adam & Eve) until the end of days. Even though there is no other way to salvation except through Christ, people were saved before Christ.
Since Jesus had not yet atoned for mankind’s sin in the days of the Old Testament, how was man saved? The short answer is that before the cross, people looked forward to the cross (though they were likely not aware that is what they were doing) whereas after the cross, we look back to the cross. The people in the Old Testament believed on the promise of God as it had been revealed to them at that point, they were saved by grace through faith. Their sins were forgiven based on the anticipated atonement of Christ. Abraham did not know about the anticipated atonement of Christ, but God did. Based on faith through grace, Abraham’s sins were forgiven because Abraham’s sins would be paid for eventually by Christ.
In Romans 4:9-11, Abraham is called the father of all those who believe. He believed God and therefore was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was justified by faith. As it is post- cross, pre-cross is that God did all of it, it is salvation by grace alone. When Abram (Abraham) believed, God saw his faith and credited to him righteousness despite the fact that Abraham continued to sin. Again, this is not any different than post-cross. All salvation was by grace through faith, according to God’s calling.
The key to understanding how Old Testament people could be saved prior to the blood-atonement of Jesus, is to read Romans 3:25 which states:
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.
The word “forbearance” means to postpone or bypass temporarily the penalty for their sins. This can be likened to a loan where the borrower does not have to begin repaying the loan until a certain period of time has passed such as a student loan. In fact, in our legal system, “forbearance” means “an intentional delay in collecting a debt or demanding performance.” In the case of the Old Testament people, God did not require that their sin be paid for or atoned until Christ came and made atonement. He delayed payment for their sin as long as they placed their faith in Him. In other words, God delayed payment for their sin and thus they avoided punishment for their sins. It was by grace through faith that they were saved.
What did the Old Testament believers have to do to be saved if they did not know that they were to place their trust in Jesus? While we know that salvation can only happen if we place our trust in Jesus, the believers in the Old Testament did not have that knowledge. Abraham placed himself before God and trusted him. Isaiah 32:2 states:
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
We now know, because we have the whole of Scripture, that Christ is the hiding place, it is Him who provides that shelter. Abraham’s faith was the same as our faith, just without the knowledge that we possess today. There is no difference in our faith of today with respect to the faith of the Old Testament believers – it is coming to God as our only hope, our shelter. God made provisions through His son Jesus. We know that but they did not. All they knew that God was merciful and if they cast themselves upon Him, He would show mercy.
After God gave the Israelite nation the law through Moses, they now had the sacrificial system to follow. While the sacrifices did not save them (Hebrews 10:4), nor could they ignore them for it was commanded by God to offer sacrifices, it was a picture of the salvation to come through Jesus. It is obvious that they did not understand that this was a shadow or picture of salvation to come. Hebrews 4 states that it was their obedience along with faith for it to be effective. In other words, if they simply killed the animal and that was that, there would be no effect. It is the fact that they killed the animal and trusted God would forgive them their sins that made it effective. Sacrifice without faith is ineffectual both in Old Testament times and New Testament times. Christ’s sacrifice is ineffectual to save anyone without faith. Again it is by grace through faith that Christ’s sacrifice can atone for our sins.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, (Ephesians 2:8)
It has always been the same from the beginning of time. We just have a clearer picture.
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This post is adapted from an answer written for GotQuestions.org