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The question of whether the Old Testament teaches salvation by works is an important one that has been debated among Christians for centuries. Conservative Christian apologists would argue that the Old Testament does not teach salvation by works but rather a salvation by faith in God.
To understand this argument, it is important to examine the Old Testament scriptures relating to salvation. One of the key scriptures in this regard is Genesis 15:6, which says, “And he believed in Jehovah, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” This verse is often cited as evidence that salvation in the Old Testament was based on faith rather than works.
The idea of salvation by faith is further developed in the book of Deuteronomy, which emphasizes the importance of obeying God’s commands as a sign of faith. In Deuteronomy 30:11-16, for example, God tells the Israelites that his commandments are not too difficult for them to keep, but rather are close to them and in their hearts. He says that if they obey his commands and love him with all their heart and soul, they will be blessed.
The Psalms and the Prophets further develop this emphasis on obedience as a sign of faith. In Psalm 1, for example, the blessed man is one who delights in the law of Jehovah and meditates on it day and night. In Isaiah 1:18-20, God invites his people to reason with him, saying that though their sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow if they are willing and obedient.
At the same time, passages in the Old Testament emphasize the importance of good works as evidence of faith. In Proverbs 19:17, for example, it says, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to Jehovah, and he will reward them for what they have done.” In Jeremiah 22:3, God commands the king of Judah to “do justice and righteousness” and to deliver the oppressed from the hand of the oppressor.
Despite these passages, however, conservative Christian apologists would argue that the overall message of the Old Testament is that salvation is a gift from God that is received by faith rather than something that is earned by good works. This is seen in passages such as Isaiah 64:6, which says that all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags, and in the story of Job, who is considered blameless and upright in God’s sight despite suffering great loss and hardship.
Moreover, conservative Christian apologists would argue that the concept of salvation by works is fundamentally opposed to the teachings of the New Testament. In Romans 3:20-22, for example, Paul says that no one will be justified by works of the law, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ. In Ephesians 2:8-9, he says that it is by grace we have been saved, through faith, and not by works.
It is worth noting, however, that some Jewish and Christian scholars have interpreted the Old Testament differently, and have argued that good works are necessary for salvation. These scholars point to passages such as Leviticus 18:5, which says, “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them,” and James 2:14-26, which says that faith without works is dead.
On this, E. Ray Clendenen writes,
According to Genesis 15:6, Abram did not buy righteousness with his faith. Rather, God gave Abram righteousness, which means right standing or acceptability before God. The biblical message is clear and consistent in both testaments: the curse of condemnation and death that rests on everyone because of Adam’s sin (Rm 5:12–21) cannot be removed and exchanged for righteousness through any amount of good deeds that one might do. The exchange can be effected only by God as a free act of His grace in response to a person’s faith (Hab 2:4; Rm 1:16–17; 4:1–25; Gl 3:6–9).
What matters in this exchange is not the quality or degree of faith but rather God’s grace; faith is not a means to earn acceptance with God. The apostle Paul considered Abraham a model of transforming faith even though the content of Abraham’s faith was different from Paul’s. Abraham simply trusted God and His promise to give him a son and then other descendants. Presumably Abraham would have supplemented God’s promise here with that of Genesis 12:1–3, trusting that his offspring would be vast not only in number but also in significance, bringing blessing to the world. The content of Abraham’s faith was not inconsistent with that of Paul, only less specific. Also, Abraham believed what God would do, and Paul believed what God had done.
Finally the New Testament explains that faith itself cannot purchase or serve as the foundation for acceptance with God. Only the cross of Christ can purchase our salvation. But since the eternal and timeless God is sovereign over events, He could apply the work of Christ to Old Testament believers in response to their faith, even though they had no specific knowledge of Christ.—E. Ray Clendenen, “Does the Old Testament Teach Salvation by Works?,” in The Apologetics Study Bible: Real Questions, Straight Answers, Stronger Faith, ed. Ted Cabal et al. (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007), 29.
In conclusion, while there are some passages in the Old Testament that emphasize the importance of good works, conservative Christian apologists would argue that the overall message of the Old Testament is that salvation is a gift from God that is received by faith. This is consistent with the teachings of the New Testament, which emphasize the importance of faith in Jesus Christ as the means of salvation.
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