Post Author: Bill Pratt
We know that today the contents of the gospel involve the deity, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But what about people who lived before him?
Theologian Norm Geisler explains:
It seems that there are at least four sine qua non explicit soteriological beliefs (or “elements of saving faith”) for all times:
(1) God exists.
(2) We cannot save ourselves from our sinfulness.
(3) God’s grace is necessary for our salvation.
(4) We must believe in God and in His grace to receive salvation.
All of these are found in one crucial text: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6).
The first, third, and fourth qualifiers are stated—(1) God exists, and (3) He graciously rescues those who (4) seek Him by faith—and the second is implied, i.e., (2) we sense the need to come to Him in faith and ask for His help, recognizing that we cannot overcome sin on our own. Without these aspects of faith (belief), it seems impossible for anyone, at any time, to be saved. This is the “universal plan of salvation.”
So what is this universal plan of salvation? How is it that Old Testament and New Testament believers both believed the same gospel?
While God’s stated content of salvation differed for Abraham and Paul, the same basic message was preached to both. Paul says there is only one gospel (Gal. 1:8), but he quickly clarifies that Abraham believed this one gospel (Gal. 3:8). The content as revealed to Abraham was,
[God] took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Gen. 15:5–6)
This act of faith is used in the New Testament as an example of how we receive justification before God (cf. Rom. 4:3). When Paul spelled out the contents of this same gospel (cf. Gal. 1:8), he included far more revelation; namely, explicit belief in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ for our sins (cf. 1 Cor. 15:1–6).
The gospel itself did not change; however, required salvific belief regarding the content of that gospel did change. Even if it could be argued from certain verses (e.g., John 8:56; Gal. 3:16) that Abraham somehow foresaw the Messiah someday coming as his Seed, it would still not be demonstrated that all believers in the Old Testament era had to know and believe the gospel as later (more fully) revealed in order to be saved. There is no evidence that every saved person from that time comprehended and embraced this, nor did any of them know that Jesus of Nazareth was the foretold Promised One.
In summary, every person who has ever been reconciled to God has believed that God exists, has recognized that her sins have separated her from God, that only God can save her, and thrown herself on the grace of God to be saved.