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How do people come into a right relationship with God?

If nobody comes to the Father but by Jesus, how did Old Testament saints get saved?

Published: 16 June 2007 (GMT+10)
Artwork by Gustave Doré, courtesy of creationism.org ‘The Trial of Abraham’s Faith’
‘The Trial of Abraham’s Faith’

Today we deal with another query from ‘Andrew’ who inquired previously about God’s foreknowledge of Adam’s sin. This time Andrew questions Russell Grigg’s claim that the Jews in the Old Testament were able to be saved through faith in God shown in obedience and repentance. Russell Grigg replies, discussing how people came into a right relationship with God in the New Testament and how today. Salvation by faith through grace is integral to our non-denominational statement of faith, so we thought we would respond in detail.

Andrew writes:

I also question you about your assertion that the Jews were ‘saved through faith in God, shown in obedience and repentance’. This strikes me as an extraordinary statement. The classical doctrine is ‘Outside the church there is no salvation’ (extra ecclesiam nulla salus). Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6). That was his answer to Thomas. It would seem to be a very good answer to the idea that that the Jews were saved through nothing more than repentance and obedience. It’s also fair, I think, to point out that the faith, repentance and obedience that you describe is entirely a mechanistic, legal repentance. You get yourself a flawless animal, take it along to the temple, go through a ritual, and hey presto! Repentance is yours. But I refer you to Psalm 34:18—‘The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves those who are contrite in spirit.’ Or (testing Scripture by Scripture) Psalm 51:17 ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.’

So then, the idea that Israel was saved by some legalistic sacrificial system is repudiated both by Christ and by the Old Testament (cf. Isaiah 57:15). I can’t help feeling that your assertion that the Old Testament is ‘about’ the sacrificial system of Israel is, at best, simplistic.

Of course the really basic problem with all this is that if the Jews could be saved through faith, repentance and obedience, then why did God bother sending Christ. Wasn’t it all rather a waste of time? I mean, why didn’t he just set up a few non-Jewish missionaries—the new Jonah rather than Christ, the new Adam. Surely John the Baptist would have done the trick. No? But why not? You can be saved through faith without Christ according to your reading of the Old Testament. Then isn’t the New Testament just redundant?

Russell Grigg replies:

What the Old Testament says about a right relationship with God

As I mentioned in the sermon, and took some pains to point out, people in the O.T. lived before the events in the N.T. Therefore no one in the O.T. knew that Jesus of Nazareth was ‘the way, the truth and the life’. Therefore no one in the O.T. could have been saved by believing that Jesus was the way the truth and the life, because Christ had not yet come and said it. Furthermore the Church had not yet been formed, so people in the O.T. were not saved through the Church either. What then?

The only safe ground is to see what Scripture says. All else is speculation. The outstanding figure for our purposes is Abraham. The N.T. refers to him as ‘the father of all them that believe’. So what does God say about Abraham?

Genesis 15:6 says that Abram ‘believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.’ This is repeated in Romans 4:3, as well as in Galatians 3:6, and in James 2:23. James 2:21–23 says that there was a certain event that proved that Abram (now with his name changed to Abraham) had faith. This was his obedience in offering up Isaac as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:1–18). In the event, only Abraham’s willingness was required, but it was still obedience. So James links faith and obedience together and says in effect that faith that does not show itself in obedience is not faith.

In the process of time, God instituted the sacrificial system (see the book of Leviticus). This was several hundred years after the death of Abraham. Don’t forget that the sermon was meant to show the time sequence of the important events in the Bible and how they correlate.

Photo stock.xchng Young goat

The sacrificial system did not, could not, and was not meant to abolish sin, because only Christ’s death on the cross can do that (1 John 3:5). The sacrificial system was meant to show that sin was worthy of death, but that God accepted the death of another. It was a means whereby the Israelites could confess their sin and show repentance. On the annual Day of Atonement, one goat was offered in sacrifice, and another was sent into the wilderness after the sins of the people had been confessed upon its head (Leviticus 16:20–22). All this was meant to cover over sins until the time when Christ would come (Romans 4:7; cf. Psalm 32:1), and it was meant to teach the O.T. Israelites the meaning and necessity of the future death of Christ the Messiah, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (Isaiah 53:6; cf. John 1:29).

The sermon was an essay in summarizing things. I began by summing up the Bible in a sentence, ‘The Bible is God’s revelation of Himself to mankind, and how He wants us to come into a right relationship with Him’. I then summarized it in a word, ‘Grace’. The way I summed up what God says in the Bible about Abraham was by saying that God accepted people in the O.T. by faith which showed itself in obedience and repentance.

Besides, if you’re going to say that the Jews were saved through faith shown in obedience and repentance then you really have to extend a similar courtesy to Islam. They claim faith in the same God as we do, they are certainly concerned with obedience (the word Islam, after all, means “submission” in Arabic) and they have a similar concept of repentance to Christians—probably more similar to the Christian concept than the Temple period Jewish one. So if the Jews are saved, why not Islam?

Not so, on several counts.

  1. Muslims worship Allah, whom they may equate with the God of the Old Testament. However, Christians worship the God who has revealed Himself to mankind in the Bible as the triune God—three eternal distinctions in the one divine essence, known respectively as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. These three distinctions are three persons, namely, God, whose name is ‘I am’ (Hebrew: YHWH, Exodus 3:14); the Son of God, whose name is Jesus (Matthew 1:21), also called Christ (Matthew 1:16; Christ means ‘the Messiah’ or ‘the anointed one’); and the Holy Spirit, whose name we are not told in the Bible (presumably we will find out what it is when we get to Heaven).
  2. Muslims are concerned with obedience, but obedience to what? The five-point formula for acceptance laid down by their founder, Mohammed, is nothing like the personal relationship to God on our part that God calls for and that Jesus described: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’ and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:29–31).
  3. If you interview a Muslim you will soon see that their understanding of ‘repentance’ is very different from the biblical concept. For example, ‘loss-of-face’ is of far more concern to the average Muslim than is sincere regret for one’s past actions.
  4. Christians have the assurance that ‘if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins’ (1 John 1:9). How can God justly forgive our sins? Answer: because the penalty has been paid by the death and resurrection of Christ (Ephesians 1:7). Since Christ has borne man’s penalty for sin, God now remits it in the case of those who believe in Christ (Colossians 2:13–14). God is entitled to say on what conditions man may receive forgiveness. This He has done in declaring that He forgives those who repent and believe on His Son. This gives Christians the assurance that they will not face future judgment for their sins (Romans 8:1). Muslims have no such assurance. (They don't even believe that Jesus died, let alone that by Him all things were created—see under ‘A very different deity’ in The Koran vs Genesis.) What they hope, but have no assurance of, is that on the Day of Judgment their good deeds will outweigh their bad deeds.
  5. So why are Muslims not saved? Because they have not entered into a right relationship with God through faith in His provision for the paying of the penalty for their sins through the death and resurrection of the Messiah (Christ), shown by their repentance and obedience to Christ.
Of course the really basic problem with all this is that if the Jews could be saved through faith, repentance and obedience, then why did God bother sending Christ. Wasn’t it all rather a waste of time? I mean, why didn’t he just set up a few non-Jewish missionaries—the new Jonah rather than Christ, the new Adam. Surely John the Baptist would have done the trick. No? But why not? You can be saved through faith without Christ according to your reading of the Old Testament. Then isn’t the New Testament just redundant?

What the New Testament says about a right relationship with God

It is very interesting and helpful, and even a surprising exercise, to go through the New Testament and note or underline all the verses that have to do with a person becoming a believer/follower/disciple of Jesus, aka a Christian. Jesus used a different approach with nearly everyone He talked to; for example what He said to the woman at the well in John 4 is totally different from what he said to Nicodemus in John 3. We are told of only one occasion when Jesus said, ‘You must be born again’. This was to the foremost theologian of the day (Nicodemus), and Nicodemus didn’t understand (or pretended not to) what Jesus meant.

Christianity is about people coming into a right personal relationship with God. There is no formula laid down, but in the preaching of Jesus recorded in John’s Gospel (which was ‘written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name’ (John 20:31), and of the disciples in Acts, certain concepts occur over and over again. They are:

From John’s Gospel

John 1:12 Receive Jesus. Believe in his name …

John 3:3 Be born again

John 3:16 Believe in the Son

John 3:36 Believe in and obey the Son

John 4:14 Drink the living water that Christ gives

John 5:24 Hear the word of Jesus and believe

John 6:54 Eat Jesus’ flesh and drink Jesus’ blood (metaphorically)

John 8:51 Keep Jesus’ word

John 10:9 Enter through the door (Jesus)

John 10:27 Hear the voice of Jesus and follow Him

John 11:25 Believe in Jesus

From the preaching and writing of the Apostles

Acts 2:38 Repent and be baptized

Acts 3:19 Repent and return

Acts 8:37 Believe with all your heart that Jesus is the Son of God

Acts 10:43 Believe in Jesus

Acts 16:31 Believe in the Lord Jesus

Acts 17:30 Repent

Acts 26:20 Repent, turn to God, do things that show repentance

Romans 1:16 Believe

Romans 10:9 Confess Jesus as Lord, believe God raised Him from the dead

Eph. 1:13 Listen, believe

Eph. 2:8–9 Through faith, not works

1 Pet. 2:24 Die to sin, live to righteousness

1 John 1:9 Confess our sins

There are obviously many other verses that could be annotated, but the above are representative. Just as we summarized what the O.T. said on coming into a right relationship with God, let us now summarize what these verses say:

Hear the word of Jesus

Believe that Jesus is God, that He died for our sins and rose again

Repent of our sins

Receive Jesus

Obey Jesus as Lord

Now as I see it, the biblical Christian is someone who has done/is doing all of these things. The Church is not mentioned in these contexts, so we have to say that the Bible says nothing about salvation being ‘through the Church’, despite what Popes have said.

We summed up what God says in the Bible about Abraham and what God instituted and required the Israelites to do by saying that God accepted people in the O.T. by faith which showed itself in obedience and repentance. In the same way I suggest that a summary of all the N.T. verses that deal with hearing, believing, repenting, receiving, and obeying is that today we are saved by faith that shows itself in obedience and repentance.

What are we meant to have ‘faith’ in?

The question then arises: What is meant by ‘faith`? Faith in who or faith in what?

I believe the answer to this question is that God requires us to have faith in what He has said, for no other reason than that He has said it.

Consider Abram—what was his faith that was so wonderful that ‘it was counted unto him as righteousness’? In Genesis 15:1–5 God gave Abram various promises and then in verse 6 it says that Abram ‘believed in the Lord’, i.e., Abram believed what God had said. Why? For no other reason than that God had said it.

Consider the N.T. verses about salvation. How do we know that believing Christ died on the Cross for our sins saves us? Answer: For no other reason than that God (or the Bible or Jesus) has said it. How do we know that ‘if we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’? Answer: For no other reason than that God has said it. And so on.

In summary, then, what God has told us is that we should have faith in the blood of Jesus, shed on the Cross as a full, complete, once-and-for-all atonement for the sin of the whole world, and that faith of the right sort will show itself in our repentance for sins committed, and in our obedience to God in the future. When we believe this about Jesus as it applies to us, we are saved. In order to believe it we must see ourselves as guilty sinners, in need of forgiveness (which is what repentance is). When we have believed it, we will want to obey the Lord who has saved us.

For God to have sent another Jonah or another John the Baptist would not have fulfilled any of the above criteria.

Russell Grigg

Readers’ comments

Grahame G.

I wonder whether the questioner is also having difficulty with the concept of time (and whether others, such as myself, would not benefit from the addition of information similar to the following). Christ’s sacrifice is not only efficacious for those who live after His death, but for those before, who were looking forward in faith. God, dwelling in eternity, was able to take their faith (demonstrated by their obedience) as applying to Messiah Who was to come.

This Messiah was promised immediately following man’s sin and it was in this Messiah that Eve was showing (misapplied) faith when Cain was born. The promise of this Messiah continues through the Old Testament as more information is revealed.

Russell makes a very good case but I wonder if the above (simpler) statement would help those who might get lost in the longer reply and miss this basic point.

And it was not obedience that saved (as the questioner seems to think Russell meant) but that their obedience proved they had genuine faith (a faith that was in God and believing for the future appearing of the perfect substitutionary Sacrifice which the animal pictured).

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