The New Testament’s rejection of earning God’s favor by works and its emphasis on salvation by grace through faith (e.g., Eph 2:8–9; Gal 2:16; Rom 4:1–12) has led many people to presume that the Old Testament teaches that people could merit salvation [in the Old Testament] by obeying the Mosaic law. However, this is not the case.
The problem of sin in the Old Testament
Old Testament theology, with its complex sacrificial system, had a firm grasp of the problem of sin, which was variously defined as being ritually impure or transgressing God’s moral law. As members of a stable nation trying to walk with their God, literally not a day could pass in the normal course of Israel’s life when they were not reminded that they were imperfect and impure in the sight of a holy God. Nothing would create the idea that human goodness could earn God’s pleasure.
However, since living according to God’s law and maintaining the purity of sacrificial worship required great human effort, Israelites also knew that salvation was not a purely passive status. The issue is not that human effort was not part of salvation. It would have been foreign to the Israelite to think that faith was not a fundamental requirement for salvation or that an individual’s own works resulted in God owing salvation to anyone.
A tree is known by its fruit
Therefore, in its framing, Old Testament salvation was the same as New Testament salvation. In the New Testament, works were essential to salvation (Jas 2:14–26) but they were never the meritorious cause of salvation; God owed salvation to no one on the basis of works. This is not contrary to Paul’s assertion that no one was justified by works. James and Paul could thus be fused this way: “For by grace are you saved through faith, which without works is dead” (Eph 2:8; Jas 2:17). No element can be eliminated.
Jesus said that a tree (and hence a believer) was known by its fruit (Matt 12:33). If an individual does not have works (“fruit”), there is no evidence of salvation. The presence of works is essential for calling someone a believer. But works do not put God in the position of owing salvation. Salvation comes by faith in Christ (its object), which produces works. Both must be present. Old Testament salvation can be framed the same way, though the object of faith differs.
Faith and obedience
With respect to the Old Testament Israelite, faith was essential to standing in right relationship to God. The Israelite had to believe that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was the true God, superior to all other gods. This would produce fruit in the form of loyal worship of only Yahweh and no other god. Old Testament Israelites also had to believe that Yahweh had come to their forefathers—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and made a covenant with them that made them his exclusive people.
This covenant included specific promises to be believed by faith. Faith in the divine origin of the covenant and its promises involved obedience. The language of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1–3; 15:1–6) was frequently repeated in connection with obedience to God (e.g., Gen 17:1–6; 22:18; 26:5). The patriarchs could not have disobeyed God’s commands by rejecting circumcision, refusing to go where God commanded, and rejecting sacrifice, and still received God’s blessing. The children of the patriarchs also had to believe that the God who delivered them from Egypt was the same God of their forefathers.
That same God gave Israel the law to distinguish them as his unique possession of humanity on Earth (e.g., Exod 20–23; Lev 10–11). An Israelite who believed he was a child of the God of Sinai produced fruit by obeying the law. The law of Sinai was connected to the promises given to Abraham (Lev 26). Faith in Yahweh and loyalty to Yahweh were both part of salvation (right relationship to God) in the Old Testament. Individuals could not be rightly-related to God by means of only one.
In all this, Israelites could not do the works of the law and then presume God owed them salvation. God was in relationship with Israel because he chose to be in that relationship—he chose this before obedience was any issue. God extended grace by calling Abraham; Abraham believed, and then Abraham showed that belief by obedience (Rom 4).
An extension of God’s grace
The concept “circumcision of the heart” is telling in regard to the balance of faith and works. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant. Since performing it required human activity, it could be thought of as a good work. God desired obedience—the submission of one’s will—on this matter. “Circumcision of the heart” speaks of a heart that believes, not a work. It is a heart submitted to God, not merely the will. A circumcised heart was a believing heart, and it was essential for right relationship to God (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4; 31:33; 32:39, 40; Ezek 11:19; 36:26, 27).
In the Old Testament law and the sacrificial system, failure was inevitable; fellowship with God would inevitably be broken. Moreover, humans were impure by nature and unable to approach the perfect divine presence. The book of Leviticus indicates that people could purge (“atone for”) the impurity caused by sin and transgression through sacrifice, which resulted in forgiveness (Lev 4:20, 26, 31, 35; 5:10, 13, 16, 18; 6:7; Num 15:25–28).
Through his grace
But they did not earn forgiveness; God provided the entire means of forgiveness—the sacrificial system—through his grace. God was not forced to provide a means of atonement or reveal what he would accept for atonement. The means of restoring fellowship with God was an extension of God’s grace.
This article is adapted from Dr. Heiser’s book The Bible Unfiltered.
Dr. Michael S. Heiser is the author of The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible and Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host.
His newest book, The World Turned Upside Down: Finding the Gospel in Stranger Things, is now on pre-order.
He’s taught many Mobile Ed courses, including Problems in Biblical Interpretation: Difficult Passages I.