It is common to hear evangelicals say, “The Old Testament is a religion of works but the New Testament is a religion of grace” or, “People in the Old Testament were saved by obeying the law and keeping the rituals God commanded, but we are saved by grace today.” While it is common to hear these things we must ask if they are true.
And I think that it is instructive to look at Paul’s great epistle of Romans. There he makes his most extensive case that we are saved and justified (given a righteous standing before God) apart from works by grace through faith in Christ. And when he comes to chapter 4 he raises the issue of how Old Testament figures were justified before God. Was it by works or by grace through faith in God’s promise of mercy ultimately given through the Christ? He emphasizes that it was not by works but by grace through faith for Abraham as well as David. These most notable men relied on grace by faith just as we do. And so those who came after them who departed from this and began depending on works were departing from the only way that God has ever established for man to be saved. That means that Christians today who believe that Old Testament people were saved by works are believing that the legalistic distortion that infected many was actually the way established by God. However our Confession gives us a wonderfully clear statement on the biblical truth in chapter 11.6. It says that the justification of believers under the Old Testament was in all the respects already taught in chapter 11 one and the same as believers under the New Testament.
Now why does this matter?
For one thing it gives us confidence that works have never been nor ever will be a way for fallen man to be right with God and to receive his blessing. In a pluralistic age where we are aware of so many religions claiming that one can be right with God by falling this or that moral/spiritual path the bibles unified testimony is that man can not be right with God and receive his blessing apart from grace through faith in Jesus. Pluralism, the idea of many paths to God, and syncretism, combining various religions that suit us to try to know God and his blessing, are not new. They are old lies and deceptions and understanding that helps us to be confident in the gospel and the need for all people to come to God through faith in Christ to receive his grace rather than by moral or spiritual works of any sort.
Another reason is that thinking Old Testament believers were saved by works but New Testament believers are saved by grace tends to distort our understanding of both law and grace. We see careful obedience to God’s commands as something foreign to the Christian faith because we don’t see such things as compatible with grace. But if we understand that Old Testament believers were saved by grace through faith and yet were called to walk carefully in God’s commandments we are able to understand that such things fit quite harmoniously together. We can be like the Psalmist who says, “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments for I delight in it. Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.” Read through Psalm 119 in one sitting. It will take you about 20 minutes but will impress upon you what delight and love and pleasure we ought to have in God’s commands. Though we are not justified through works, and none ever were, oh how we ought to love and walk in God’s commands.
Westminster Confession 11.6
The justification of believers under the Old Testament was, in all these respects, one and the same with the justification of believers under the New Testament.
GAL 3:9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: 14 That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. ROM 4:22 And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. 23 Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; 24 But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. HEB 13:8 Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.