SALVATION BY GRACE THROUGH FAITH
By John Telgren
We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10 and Romans 3:21-31). Countless Christians and preachers believe that this is a distinct New Testament teaching. In other words, the Old Testament was based on salvation by law keeping, and the New Testament is based on salvation by grace through faith. Is this true?
Notice this passage concerning Abraham, "Then he believed in the LORD, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6)." This "Old Testament" verse is used in Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23 to demonstrate that God justifies by faith, not by the law. Indeed, this was hundreds of years before the Mosaic code was given to the people of Israel at Mount Sinai.
Now let's jump forward to the book of Exodus. On what basis did God save the children of Israel? Was it because they kept the law? No, the law is not given until they arrive at Sinai in Exodus 19. Maybe it was because of their faith. Exodus 4:31 says that the children of Israel believed. However, this faith was short lived (Exodus 6:9; 14:11-12). But their faith returns again when the cross the Sea of Reeds and they "believe" in and "fear" the Lord (Exo. 14:31). However, their faith is not consistent. Later, while they were at the base of Mount Sinai, they began to worship an idol after the Lord had commanded them not to. God was ready to destroy them but Moses pleads with God and manages to get God to relent (Exo 32:7-14). Now the people are both the redeemed and "forgiven" people of God. On what basis did God forgive them? It wasn't because of their obedience to the law. It was by God's grace.
So salvation by God's grace is not a doctrine unique to the New Testament. As a matter in fact, at Sinai God he says he will visit "the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands…(Exo 20:5-6)". Notice that God visits the iniquity to the third and fourth generation, but lovingkindness to the thousandth. The idea that God was a God of wrath in the Old Testament and a God of Love in the New Testament is simply not true. The Psalmist remarks, "The LORD is compassionate and gracious, Slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness. He will not always strive with us, Nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, Nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, So great is His lovingkindess toward those who fear Him. As far as the east is from the west, So far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:8-12)."
Did the people perform works of the law to remove their transgression from them? No, the Psalmist declares that it was God himself. Salvation by grace is an Old Testament doctrine. People are saved by grace every bit as much in the Old Testament as they are in the New Testament. God is the one who ALWAYS does the saving, not the people.
Let's jump forward to the period of the divided monarchy. In Isaiah 7, two small time kings come up against Judah. King Ahaz and the people were terrified. God commissions Isaiah to go meet Ahaz to tell him not to worry and trust God. Verse 7:9 literally says something like, "If your faith does not stand, you will not stand." God is calling on Ahaz to trust him. God even invites him to ask for a sign to try and strengthen his faith! Ahaz pretends to be religious and refuses the sign. 2 Kings 16:5-9 tells us the real reason Ahaz refuses the sign. Ahaz did not want to believe in God. He chose instead to make an alliance with Assyria (and later with Egypt) in order to get their "protection." What is the result of Ahaz's faith in foreign treaties? Their protectors will become their oppressors (Isa. 7:17-20; 8:7-8)!
Isaiah delivers an oracle against foreign treaties in Isaiah 28:14-16. Isaiah tells them that the rulers have not made a covenant with Assyria, but with death! They have not made an agreement with Egypt, but with Sheol! Their trust in foreign military power will backfire on them. They will become a "trampling place" (Isa. 28:18). In the midst of this situation God says he is laying in Zion a tested, precious, firm cornerstone. He is telling them not to turn to house of Assyria or Egypt, but to Yahweh's house in Zion. Only by turning to God can they be saved. "He who believes will not be disturbed (Isa. 28:16)." This is the "tested" stone. God has already proven that he can save his people even from the likes of Pharaoh as was seen in Exodus. God is making a call for faith in himself, their rock of salvation.
The Psalmist reflects on this in Psalm 118. The Psalm is all about faith in God. Recalling Isaiah 28:16, he says, "the stone the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone (Psa 118:22)." Ahaz and so many others chose not to trust in God, and their house fell. Only through faith in God can anyone stand.
So salvation by faith in God is not a New Testament doctrine, but a biblical doctrine. People were saved by faith every bit as much by faith in the Old Testament as in the New. It is interesting that Peter uses Isaiah 28:16 as well as Psalm118:22 as a call for faith in Christ in 1 Peter 2:6. The theme of faith runs from beginning to end in our Bible.
Hebrews 11 says, "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for who who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him (Heb 11:6)." What does this passage use to develop this point? It uses examples of faithful people not from the Old Testament. People like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and many others "gained approval through their faith (Heb 11:39)." We gain God's approval by our faith every bit as much as these believers before Christ came.
So why does the New Testament spend so much time saying we are not justified by works of the law but by faith? The New Testament is speaking against a misunderstanding of the law. In a nutshell, what had happened was many Jewish teachers came to believe that a meticulous keeping of God's law would give them favor and salvation in God's eyes. The result was the growth of a body of tradition on law keeping known as the "oral Torah", later known as the Mishnah when committed to writing. This body of teaching was even considered authoritative by many Jews. It was believed that strict conformity to the law would likely grant God's favor and salvation. But the law was meant to give direction on how to live a peaceful godly life, not to save. It wasn't until AFTER God saves Israel from Egypt that he gives them the law. Furthermore, God has always been concerned with the heart (Deut. 6:6), not with empty outward actions. Outward actions were always to be a reflection of the heart, a result of faith. These Jews had totally turned the relationship of faith to law on its head. But of course, we are Christians and this sort of thing would NEVER happen to us!