How Did Salvation and Forgiveness Take Place in the Old Testament?

How were people forgiven (or saved) in the Old Testament? Did forgiveness (or salvation) take place through sacrifices or human effort? The short answer is forgiveness (and salvation) was received in the Old Testament the same way it’s received in the New Testament: by grace through faith.

Unfortunately, people think of the Gospel as a New Testament invention, but Paul uses the Old Testament to present the Gospel. He explains justification by faith apart from the law and works in Romans 3:21-28. Then he discusses two prominent Old Testament men to have credibility with his Jewish readers. In the process he shows people were forgiven (or saved) in the Old Testament, just as believers are in the New Testament.

Paul’s First Example of Old Testament Salvation: Abraham—The Father of the Jewish People

Although Abraham was well-respected, he committed well-known sins:

  • God commanded Abraham to leave his family behind. He failed by bringing his nephew Lot (Genesis 12:1-4).
  • Abraham failed when he left Canaan, went to Egypt, and tried to protect himself by telling Sarah to say she was his sister (Genesis 12:10-20).
  • Sarah told Abraham to have a child with Hagar, and he obeyed her (Genesis 16:1-2).
  • Abraham lied about Sarah being his sister (Genesis 20:2).

Romans 4:1—What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? 2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God.

We can boast if we’re justified by works, “but not before God,” because it wouldn’t impress him.

Romans 4:3—What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, which summarizes the Gospel. Abraham was justified by faith. He was saved by believing God.

Romans 4:4—Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.

When your boss gives you a paycheck you’d be offended if he said, “This is a gift.” You worked for it; therefore, you earned it. A system of works makes God “obligated” to us.

Romans 4:5—However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness.

The man who attempts to be justified – or saved – by works is not trusting God. He’s trusting himself. The man who trusts God finds his faith credited – or given to him – as righteousness.

Paul’s Second Example of Old Testament Salvation: David—The King of the Jewish People

According to God’s Law, David committed two sins that should’ve resulted in death: adultery and murder (2 Samuel 11). A few things made David’s terrible sins even worse:

  • David’s accountability—He knew God’s Law well.
  • David was blessed—God brought him of that shepherd’s field where he was a nobody born to a no-name family. Then God turned him into the rich and powerful king of Israel.
  • David’s sins were premeditated—He planned out all the details, even writing a letter to Joab that he had Uriah himself carry. It was one of the darkest moments in the Old Testament.

If David had to be justified, or declared righteous by works, he’d stand condemned before God. Since justification is by faith, he felt very blessed…

Romans 4:6—David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works:

David agreed with Abraham about justification by faith, and he wrote about his thankfulness in Psalm 32:1-2, which Paul quoted in Romans 4:7-8:

“Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him.”

When you’ve sinned like David did, you’re very thankful when God doesn’t “count” those sins against you, but instead “counts” or “credits” righteousness to you.

Romans 4:9-10—Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before!

Abraham was declared righteous by God in Genesis 15:6 when he “believed God” at 86 years old. He wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17:24, when he 99. Since he was declared righteous 13 years before he was circumcised, he had to be justified by faith and not works.

David’s Sins Should not Have Received Forgiveness

If anyone deserved death it was David, but this is also why David’s situation provides one of the greatest examples of God’s grace and mercy in all of Scripture. Nathan the Prophet confronted David, and he responded:

2 Samuel 12:13a—“I have sinned against the Lord.”

This is how we should respond when we sin. In these few words David provides a number of lessons:

  • Take ownership: “I have…”
  • Call it what it is: “sin.”
  • Acknowledge the sin was “against the Lord”
  • Avoid excuses and blame shifting.

Then Nathan said:

2 Sam 12:13b—“The Lord also has taken away your sin.”

These are some of the most amazing words in the Old Testament. Despite the enormity and wickedness of David’s sin, it was “taken away.” Hebrews 10:4 and 11 both state:

“It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

Sacrifices couldn’t forgive sins, say nothing of take them away. How could Nathan say this to David? His sins were taken away the same way ours are taken away:

  • When John the Baptist saw Jesus he said, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29).
  • 1 John 3:5 says “[Jesus] was manifested to take away our sins.”

If any Old Testament sacrifices could take away sins, Jesus’s sacrifice would’ve been unnecessary. David looked forward in faith to Jesus the way we look backward in faith to our Savior.

The New Covenant Foreshadowed in the Old Covenant

The grace and mercy David received provide a beautiful glimpse of the New Covenant under the Old Covenant. What did David do to receive this forgiveness? Psalm 51:16-17 records:

For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart—
These, O God, You will not despise.

David didn’t offer any sacrifices. He had a spiritual insight that was tremendous. He knew parts of the New Testament before they were written, and he knew no Old Testament sacrifices could make up for his sins.

But he did know there was a “sacrifice” he could “give”; he knew there was an “offering” God “desired”: “a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart.”

David Confess his sin and it “took away” evil sins he committed. This is without personal merit, human effort, or penance. This is New Covenant forgiveness by grace; justification by faith.

Forgiveness that Provided Life Instead of Death

David’s sins demanded death, but he found: life. Nathan also said:

2 Samuel 12:13c—“You shall not die.”

These words mean David was going to die. The Old Covenant (the Law) demanded what it always demands: death. But David was able to find life. He recognized the greatness of what took place, which led him to write Psalm 32. Paul quoted this in Romans 4, showing forgiveness and salvation took place the same way in the Old and New Testaments.

Discussion Questions to Answer in the Comments Section 

  • Do you agree or disagree with the post?
  • How did you previously think people were forgiven and saved in the Old Testament? Do you think that now?
  • What other supporting verses from the Old Testament come to mind? What verses from the New Testament?

5 thoughts on “How Did Salvation and Forgiveness Take Place in the Old Testament?

    1. Hi Augustine,
      I’m not sure if I completely understand your comment. If you mean why wasn’t David punished for his sins, I’d say the answer is the main point of the post. David wasn’t punished for his sins – he received mercy – even though punishment was deserved. This is the case for us in the New Testament as well. We deserve to be punished, but Jesus took that punishment on Himself.

Do you have a question or thought? If so, please share!