Were the Old Testament Israelites saved by keeping the Law?

A recent answer stated that the people who lived before Jesus was born were saved by looking ahead to the promised Savior and trusting Him for their salvation. Some may wonder about the law of Moses. If people before Jesus were saved by trusting God’s promises to save, why did God give the law to the Israelites?

Historically, many Israelites believed they could be saved by obeying the Mosaic law. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day believed they were righteous because they were the children of Abraham who kept the law of Moses and the traditions of their fathers. All throughout the Old Testament the Israelites seemed frequently to misunderstand the role of the law. Even today many people look at the Old Testament and think the Israelites gained eternal life by being devout keepers of all the commands, rituals and sacrifices given through Moses. Is this true? Were the Israelites saved by obeying the law of Moses?

No Israelite was ever saved by his obedience to the law. The major theme of Romans and Galatians is the inability of the law to save. Galatians 2:16 says, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” No one was ever justified- made righteous before God- by keeping the law. Old Testament Israelites were saved by trusting God for forgiveness of sin. Habakkuk 2:4 says, “the just shall live by his faith.” In Psalm 32 David rejoices in the blessings of being forgiven. He does not associate forgiveness with his keeping of the law but with the grace and mercy of God. David acknowledged his sin to God. He cried out in confession of his guilt and God gave forgiveness. Throughout the Psalms David declares that God is his salvation. The salvation that David describes is always based upon the compassion of God, not the obedience of the individual. He that could be righteous enough to earn salvation would have no need of forgiveness. In the Old Testament God never forgave because men earned His salvation. God forgave because of His great compassion. God poured out mercy on those who sought it from him.

The book of Isaiah is full of promises about the coming Jewish King and Savior. The Messiah and His kingdom are described at length. Isaiah ends with a great confession of sin and a plea for God to pardon the Israelites. Isaiah 64 recognizes the righteousness of men is no righteousness at all. The only answer, the only hope for Old Testament Israel, was to be pardoned by God. Isaiah 53 describes the work of the Messiah to gain that pardon and the eleventh verse says, “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” Old Testament Israelites were saved by Jesus’ bearing their sin on the cross. God’s judgment was satisfied by the suffering of His Son. Jesus makes men righteous, whether those men live now or 3,000 years ago, by carrying on His shoulders the consequences of their sin. Salvation is always, and only, by Jesus. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

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