How Were Those in the Old Testament Saved? John MacArthur Answers

Jul 12, 2017 11:42 AM EDT

California megachurch pastor and author John MacArthur has weighed in on the question of how people in the Old Testament were saved, explaining that there's only been one way of salvation in all of God's redemptive history - and that is faith alone.

MacArthur, the pastor of the evangelical Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, and president of The Master's University in Newhall and The Master's Seminary in Los Angeles, participated in a panel discussion during Ligonier Ministries 2017 regional conference in Los Angeles on June 9.

During a question-and-answer session, MacArthur was asked how those in the Old Testament - before Jesus came in the flesh - were saved.

MacArthur first referred to Romans 4:3: "For the Scriptures tell us, 'Abraham believed God, and God counted him as righteous because of his faith.'"

"There's only been one way of salvation in all of God's redemptive history, and that is faith alone," the pastor said. "People in the Old Testament were not saved by works, they were not saved by offering sacrifices, they were not saved by feeling badly about their sins."

MacArthur pointed to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14, where a Pharisee, obsessed by his own virtue, is contrasted with a tax collector who humbly asks God for mercy.

"They were saved by pounding on their chest, looking at the ground, realizing they had nothing in themselves but judgement coming and saying 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner,'" MacArthur said. "That is the kind of repentance that marks an Old Testament true believer, and a cry for God to save him simply because he believed and trusted in God."

He added, "That faith, that penitent kind of faith, was counted as righteousness, and righteousness was imputed to him based upon a sacrifice that was to come in the person of Christ which reached back all the way to the beginning of redemptive history as it reaches forward all the way to the end of redemptive alone."

"It's always been faith, and it's a faith that recognizes a sinners sinfulness and recognizes nothing good in the sinner that he can do to gain God's forgiveness and God's favor. He throws himself at the mercy of God," he said. 

Dr. Julius J. Kim, Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, said Hebrews 11 is a perfect example of the faith of the Old Testament saints.

"In this wonderful chapter, you have all these testimonies of these Old Testament saints and to the faith they had in the promise to come, and God reckoned to them righteousness. It doesn't say that specifically, but I think that's really the the whole book of Hebrews; Jesus is better. Jesus is better than the angels, Jesus is better than the priesthood, etc."

Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, President and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary California, said it's important to remember that the term "faith alone" is in a sense an abbreviation.

"Because of the misunderstanding of faith in our time, it would be better to avoid the abbreviation sometimes and say 'we're saved by faith in Christ alone'", he said. "If we just say 'by faith' that may mean we're looking at ourselves and what we're doing, and that's not what the reformation meant by faith. Faith is always looking away from yourself, is always looking to Christ and resting in Christ."

He added, "All of the Old Testament saints were saved by faith in the Christ who was to come, just as we're saved by the Christ who has come."