How can people be saved without Jesus?

I received a question asking how people who hadn’t heard the gospel or who came before Jesus could be saved.

My response is below:

You bring up a great question that people still struggle with today.  The question is what the content of one’s faith must be in order to be saved.  It is agreed by all Christians that one is saved on the basis of faith and the means of salvation is the atoning sacrifice of Christ.  The question is whether the content of one’s faith must contain the atoning sacrifice of Christ in order to be saved by that means.  How can someone, who has no knowledge of Christ, nonetheless be saved by means of Christ’s sacrifice?

The Apostle Paul taught in Romans 3:23-26, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 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.  It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.”

Notice the curious phrase, “This was to show God’s righteousness … it was to show his righteousness at the present time…”  In other words, Christ’s sacrifice shows that God was right in passing over sins previously committed.  Consider the weight of that.  The entire sacrificial system was incapable of atoning for sin on Paul’s view, rather God was passing over their sins during that period and looking forward to Christ as the means for their forgiveness.  If not for Christ, then the implication is that God would have been unrighteous for passing over their sins even though they made sacrifices at the temple.  The author of Hebrews would go on to say, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:4)

This creates a notable scenario.  The Old Covenant peoples were forgiven on the basis of their faith in God and by the means of Christ’s atoning sacrifice even though they had no knowledge or awareness of Christ’s sacrifice.  Their response of faith to what revelation God had given them was taken as the basis for their forgiveness and right standing, and later when Christ’s atonement was revealed it showed that God had not been unrighteous in passing over their sins.  In short, and just as with Abraham, they believed God and it was counted to them as righteousness.  Another way of phrasing Abraham’s experience was simply that he responded appropriately to the revelation God had given him (“he believed God”) and he was saved or made right with God on the basis of that (“it was counted to him as righteousness”).  As Paul teaches in Romans 3, the means by which this righteousness was counted to them was Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

Sincerely,
Matt Bilyeu


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