The Old Testament Saints
Are the people faithful to God in the Old Testament still damned because they lived before the saving work and death of Christ? This is a question often asked by both Christians and skeptics. The quick answer is: No, they are not damned. The Old Testament faithful are saved by the work of Christ.
To conclude this series on pluralism and inclusivism, we’ll look at one more inclusivist claim of scholar Clark Pinnock. His inclusivist view proposes that one does not have to believe in Christ specifically to be saved, and one way he supports his argument is by pointing to the faithful who are saved in the Old Testament before the coming of Christ.
Surely, Pinnock claims, many loyal people of God written about in the Old Testament had saving faith long before Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I believe he is correct here, as well see by the biblical evidence below.
Pinnock and other inclusivists name Abraham as a prime example. They are right in that Abraham had saving faith before Christ, but they are overlooking important details. Abraham was not a faithful “pagan saint” who came to salvation through his paganism.
First, Abraham came into a covenantal relationship with God by the self-disclosure of God himself, which is an example of special, not general, revelation. Abraham was likely a pagan before God revealed himself to him in Genesis 12, and all evidence indicates that not only did God initiate this relationship but also Abraham was not chosen for any particularly reason, including any sort of righteous behavior.
Secondly, this means Abraham clearly had correct information about God, which—as we have seen—is a requirement for salvation.
Thirdly, Abraham had faith in God’s promises, which would include looking forward to Christ, a promise going all the way back to the Fall in Genesis 3:15. God promises Abraham that through him all the families of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), and Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Immediately following this in 15:7–21, God and Abraham partake in a clear covenantal-sealing ceremony, and we see another covenantal milestone, symbolized by circumcision, between God and Abraham in 17:1–4.
Finally, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
We also see this idea in the Book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Take a moment to read Hebrews 10:1-18, where this fleshed out.
Interestingly, Pinnock cites Romans 4:1–25 to support his view, but Romans 4:20–25 actually counters his view. Paul writes, Abraham had “[n]o unbelief… concerning the promise of God” (4:20), and he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21).
Abraham is not an example of an adherent of another faith moved to saving faith by the Holy Spirit; quite the contrary, he is a man in covenantal relationship with the true God through the self-disclosure of that one true God, and a man with complete faith in the promises of God (Heb. 11:17–19), which include the promise of the coming Christ.
If there is any question about this, Jesus himself says to his fellow Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
“The Faith Hall of Fame”
Hebrews 11, sometimes nicknamed “The Faith Hall of Fame,” mentions many Old Testament saints who lived in faith. As with Abraham, inclusivists cannot use this to support their case; all those Old Testament saints mentioned knew the God of the Bible, not some generic god or false faith, and believed in God’s promises.
Wellum writes, “[T]he entire context of Hebrews 11 describes a ‘faith’ which is rooted in God’s covenant promises, now brought to fulfillment in Christ.” Hebrews 11 starts by making this clear enough: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (11:1–2). “Commendation” is defined as an award involving praise and can be also translated as “approval.” Likewise, Hebrews 11:13 tells us, “These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.”
Their faith was not in some false religion with some partial truth about God; as in all of the Old Testament, their faith was specifically rooted in the one true God and his promises of salvation.
Thus, Abraham was justified by faith alone, which is confirmed by Paul (Rom. 4:1–25), and Paul confirms believers before Christ are destined to become “sons” (Gal. 3:23; 4:1). Hebrews 11:39–40 confirms that other Jews and pagans were saved by their faith before the coming of Jesus.
In closing, a careful reading of the Bible shows that Pinnock’s inclusivist interpretations of Scripture are not biblical. One must have knowledge of Jesus Christ to benefit from his salvific work, and the Holy Spirit only works in giving saving faith in connection to Christ. The idea of “pagan saints” in the New Testament era is unfounded, and Old Testament saints were saved by God’s self-disclosure and their faith in God’s future promise of salvation through Christ.
Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?
Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?
Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?
Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?
Read Part 5: The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?
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