Prior to Jesus dying on the cross, how were people saved?
Since Adam rebelled at the beginning, the Creator instituted only one way for a person to be declared righteous and that is through repentant trust in the coming Victor. The Lord promised his Victor would be the seed of a woman when he cursed the serpent (Genesis 3:14-15).
Scripture names the serpent the Devil and Satan, both words meaning Accuser and Slanderer. Our Lord calls him the liar and murderer from the beginning (John 8:44; Revelation 12:9). This first gospel-promise (or protoevangelium) provides the only antidote to the Slanderer’s lie. The Coming One even calls himself the Truth in contrast to Satan’s lie (John 14:6, 8:32). Implicitly, the first couple had to put their repentant trust in him alone as the coming seed of the woman when they allowed the Lord to clothe their shame with slain animal skins. These skins were a symbol of the coming sacrificial and substitutionary ransom for their sin, the innocent One for the guilty. The coming Victor would not only crush the Serpent’s head to deliver Adam and Eve from their fear of divine wrath but also would be the slain Lamb to cover their shame and guilt with his ransoming, outpoured blood.
John the Baptist explicitly named Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). This Lamb was also the Lion-King of the tribe of Judah, the Messiah or Christ (Revelation 5:5), the Son of David and the Seed of Abraham (Mathew 1:1; Galatians 3:16).
Anyone, who trusted in the promise of the coming Son, now “born of a woman, born under law,” was justified, delivered from both the curse and obligation of the broken divine law. Jesus has now come to fulfill the complete and loving righteousness demanded by the holy Creator-God (Galatians 3:13-14, 4:1-7) so that a great exchange took place from the beginning. We see this most clearly in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He who knew no sin became sin on our behalf so that we would become the righteousness of God in Him.” True justifying trust has always worked its way out into a new lifestyle of giving love (Habakkuk 2:4; Galatians 5:6; James 2:14-26; 1 John 3:11-16).
All the saved and holy people of the Old Testament fully trusted God, as Hebrews 11 teaches. God revealed the Gospel to, for example, Abraham with the promise that all peoples of earth would be blessed through following his example of trusting God’s promise and being justified by repentant faith. Everyone who followed his steps of faith is saved as Paul also shows in Romans 4:9-17. God then put a perfect righteousness into his account book (Galatians 3:5-9; Hebrews 11:8-12) as he does ours (Romans 5:18-25). Moses also “regarded disgrace for the sake of [the coming] Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward” (Hebrews 11:26).
Similarly, Rahab the former prostitute trusted the saving power of the God of the Jews and chose to identify with them and their coming Deliverer and Lord (Hebrews 11:31). This single way of redemption has been communicated throughout Scripture though with greatest clarity in the New Testament.
Overall, the only way anyone has been declared righteous from the Fall until the present is through trust in the substitutionary atonement of our Victor-King. In the past, people looked forward to him; now we look back to his finished work.
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