A few days ago, long-time reader Price asked me about the nature of Jewish salvation before the cross.
You pointed out that forgiveness of sin was already available under the Law … and included scriptural support which one can’t really argue with … so is John the Baptist just stating the obvious? That if one repents, forgiveness is available under the present Law? If that is the case, then the sins that are forgiven are a one time forgiveness … not a continual product of grace provided for in the new covenant at the cross … Is that correct ?
I answered in the comments, but I thought the question merited consideration as a main post. Here’s my answer from the comment, edited —
I think it’s kind of in layers.
One layer is that the Jews were always saved by faith — to the extent any one was saved at all. “Faith” includes faithfulness includes repentance. Being penitent is essential to having faith at all. That’s the individual layer. And God saves individuals.
But God also deals with Israel as a nation, and John the Baptist was calling the entire nation to repent because God was granting repentance to the Jews — as a nation — to end the Exile and bring the Kingdom. The opportunity had not existed before because the time had not yet been right. The Exile and the curses of Deu 28 were potentially at an end because the Kingdom would soon come. The nation therefore had the opportunity to repent as a nation, be relieved of the curses and Exile, and be restored to right relationship with God — and so enter the Kingdom and the blessed rule of the Messiah.
I take such Acts phrases as “grant repentance” (Acts 5:31) to mean that the time had arrived for the nation to repent and be restored. The offer of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration per Deu 30 was being made by God through John, Jesus, and then the apostles. The opportunity had arrived. The moment had come.
But the nation of Israel, as a nation, rejected God’s offer and so continued in Exile, accursed, and ultimately found its Holy City destroyed and Temple pulled down stone by stone by the Romans — in an eerie repeat of the Babylonian Captivity. But some Jews had faith in Jesus as Messiah, repented, were forgiven, were restored, and entered the Kingdom. These became the “remnant” Paul speaks of in Rom 11 as having been prophesied (Rom 11:1-5). They are the true Israel — into which the faithful Gentiles were later grafted (Rom 11:17-24).
So, at an individual level, faith/faithfulness/penitence has always been accepted by God. But at a national level — at the level of the destiny prophesied by Moses and the Prophets, John the Baptist was announcing a turning point in Jewish and world history because God was making a last-ditch effort to restore Israel to right relationship so they would all enjoy the Kingdom he had long promised them. God was being faithful to his covenants — and more so — by not only accepting faith as righteousness but sending John and Jesus and the apostles to warn the Jews and plead with them to repent by following Jesus.
So it’s not really about a one-time or continuous forgiveness. It’s about God moving in history to attempt to rescue his people from a worldly perspective that relied on swords and siege warfare to bring about an earthly kingdom, corruption in the Temple, a false reliance on ancestry rather than faith, and a lack of concern for the poor and oppressed — which we might see as national diseases, just as idolatry (very literal idolatry) brought about Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest as something of a national disease.
But at the individual level Jeremiah remained saved despite God’s cursing of the nation. He dealt with Israel as a nation but individuals were saved or lost based on their individual faith/faithfulness.
It’s a difficult concept for Americans because we have such an individualized culture and version of Christianity. Some of this is from Calvin, who individualized election, although in the OT, election is about Israel, not each individual Jew. Saul was among the chosen people, but he was individually rejected.
Just so, we Gentiles have been saved and so grafted into the elect people of God. God has chosen the Kingdom as a continuation of Israel as the chosen people. This hardly argues for individual election — although we struggle to see it any other way. Rather, Israel is elect, and we’re added to Israel and so become elect, too.
This makes much better sense of the predestination passages. Sadly, we generally only care about our individual atonement – not realizing that individual atonement is a corollary of national atonement. If we weren’t invited into Israel — granted repentance unto God (Acts 11:1) — we’d not be saved at all. God is under no obligation to save those who repent — except due to the covenants he made with Israel. The ability to find forgiveness and salvation through repentance is a gift from God, not an entitlement that God is bound to honor.
Hence, predestination is about God’s plan from Abraham to invite the Gentiles in — not necessarily me or you but all nations. (This is what Rom 9 – 11 is really saying. Makes better sense of Eph 1 as well.) To Paul, God’s great miracle and mystery revealed is that the Gentiles become not just blessed but grafted into Israel, allowing them to be saved by faith (like Abraham, by virtue of God’s covenant with Abraham.)
(Eph 3:1-6 ESV) For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles — 2 assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, 3 how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. 4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
The mystery — the great surprise found in the gospel — is that God invited the Gentiles into Israel to share in the covenant promises God made to Abraham.
To the Jews and the Gentiles both, this was shocking. Gods were seen as gods of a nation. Or a vocation. Or a place. A God of the entire universe was beyond comprehension. And a God willing to claim Lordship over all other gods in order to invite Gentiles — strangers, even enemies — into his salvation, well, that was beyond comprehension!
We just don’t think that way and so we miss the story and the point and wind up arguing over predestination and election in terms that Paul would not even recognize as Jewish or Christian.
(I readily admit that Calvin raises some challenging philosophical questions re foreknowledge and freewill. I just don’t think Paul was dealing with those particular questions. He was much more worried about how Gentiles could be saved when the promises given by God were only to Abraham and his offspring.)
So to answer your question more directly, if salvation was by faith from Abraham to Jesus (if not from Abel to Jesus, per Heb 11), then salvation is not a momentary forgiveness that dissipates with the next lustful or angry thought. It was continuous as long as faith continued. (I am correcting myself on this particular point. I’m learning as I go.)
But that faith was only “faith” so long as Jesus had not yet been revealed as Messiah. Once God resurrected Jesus and his Messiahship was announced at Pentecost, the requisites for faith changed, as we’ve just covered.