The New Paganism (Part 6) Are the Old Testament Faithful Damned Because They Lived Before Christ?

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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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The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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The question Are there non-Christians saved by their pagan faith in the New Testament? many seem like an oddly specific and out-of-the-blue question, but let me explain:

In previous articles in this series, we have been looking at the inclusivistic beliefs of scholar Clark Pinnock. Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work (including his death and resurrection) achieved salvation, but one does not have to know of or believe in Christ to benefit from it and be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or pursuing their personal understanding of God or spirituality.

To support his view, Pinnock cites Cornelius in the New Testament (Acts 10:1–48) and other “pagan saints” in the Old Testament like Abraham, Melchizedek, Abimelech, Job, and Abel. God shows no partiality in his love for the world, Pinnock argues, and Cornelius represents that “God never leaves himself without a witness among all people (Acts 14:17).”

On the other hand, Pinnock freely admits that he does not know “exactly what role, if any, a given religion plays,” but he is confident the Spirit is at work “when and where it is possible and appropriate” to use non-Christian religions. Pinnock states, “Everyone must eventually pass through Jesus to reach the Father, but there is more than one path for arriving at this place… All the paths that lead to God end up at Jesus, but they do not all start with him.”

We already explored whether the Holy Spirit works apart from Christ and concluded that he does not. We will look at the Old Testament in the next (and final) article in this series. For now, let’s quickly look at Cornelius, the supposed “pagan saint” of the New Testament.

“Pagan Saints”

Inclusivists like Pinnock often cite Cornelius in Acts 10 as an example of a saved nonbeliever, a “pagan saint” in the New Testament era, but this is not the case. (Take a moment to read the New Testament account here.)

First, the Roman Cornelius and his household are not pagans who have saving faith, but “God-fearers” — non-Jews who follow the Jewish faith. Cornelius is described as “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God” (10:2). Despite this, Cornelius is not saved; Christ is the fulfillment of the Jewish faith (Matt. 5:17), so to follow Judaism without knowing Christ does not grant salvation.

Secondly, Cornelius and his household are clearly not saved until after learning of Christ. Peter clearly proclaims to them the gospel in 10:34–43, concluding with “everyone who believes in him [Christ Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (10:43).

Immediately, as Peter is still speaking, the Holy Spirit “fell on all who heard the word” (10:44) and they began speaking in tongues and praising God (10:46). Recognizing the Holy Spirit’s work in them, Peter calls for them to be immediately baptized. It’s odd that so many inclusivists appeal to Cornelius when it is so plain that salvation did not come until after learning of Christ and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Some inclusivists may say this episode illustrates how general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can work in non-Christian religions to bring one to saving faith. Perhaps general revelation brought Cornelius from being a pagan to a God-fearer, but his salvation only came about through special revelation (the unique supernatural works of God throughout history) in visions to both him (10:3–6) and Peter (10:10–16), as well as the Holy Spirit speaking directly to Peter (10:19–20), through hearing a gospel proclamation, and through the work of the Holy Spirit in convicting Cornelius and his household of the truth of Peter’s proclamation.

The only part of this episode that may support inclusivism would be 10:34–35, where Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” It is doubtful Peter is speaking here of saving faith. The main point of Acts 10 is to show that God’s salvation extends to everyone, not just to the Jews, as illustrated in Peter’s vision of the animals (Acts 10), symbolizing the ending of Old Testament dietary laws due to Christ fulfilling the law.

Furthermore, the word translated “acceptable” (dektos) is not the word used in the New Testament for justification (dikaioo) — to be made right with God — and Peter goes on to explain specifically in 10:34 that salvation comes from believing in Christ.

Where the episode with Cornelius does not support the inclusivist view that general revelation (that one can know certain things about God through nature and/or their innate senses) can bring saving faith apart from Christ, it does give hope that God seeks out his people and saves them through special revelation, the unique supernatural works of God throughout history, including Christ himself, the Bible, the gospel, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

NEXT: Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus 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?


Want to support me as I defend the faith and give a reason for the hope of Christ to college students at Rutgers University? Learn more by clicking here.