In this video, Don Carson, president of TGC, provides a simple explanation of how people were saved in the Old Testament. God has always required that his people exercise faith, even when that faith lacked the clear connections to Jesus that we can see today.
Old Testament believers were saved by grace through faith, by the grace of God whom they trusted according to His own promises. In that broad sense, there really is no difference between the way the Old Testament saints were saved and the way New Testament saints are saved.
But nevertheless, the obedience of faith that was required under the Mosaic covenant, for example, demanded that people worship at the Tabernacle then later at the Temple. God commanded them to participate in the sacrifices of the Day of Atonement, in Passover, and so on. And very few of these people saw clearly how some of these sacrifices pointed forward to the ultimate sacrifice. Nevertheless, they took God at his Word.
Just as in the original Passover, if the Israelites sprinkled the door of their house with blood on the side post and on the lintel, the angel of death would pass over and spare them. So, they took God at his Word; they believed him, they exercised faith, and by God’s good grace, the wrath of God was put aside. Thus, by God’s gracious arrangement of things received by the faith of the individuals and families of Israel, they were spared. And that repeated celebration of the Passover event again and again and again ultimately creates a trajectory that points forward to the ultimate Passover Lamb, which makes Paul write to the Corinthians and say, “Christ, our Passover has been sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7).
They trusted God and his promises. By the arrangement of God, the sins were dealt with, even if they did not see the whole arc of the redemptive story as clearly as we can see it by looking back the other direction. Hebrews and Romans had not yet been written to tie so many of these things together, and yet the pieces were there. The Israelites were expected to take God at his Word and to trust him to forgive their sins according to all of his mercies. The sacrifice is emblematic of the ultimate sacrifice that was yet to come.
So in that sense, believers in the Old Testament were saved by grace through faith, but we do see a lot more clearly how that works out in God’s great redemptive plan that focuses finally on Christ.