For many years, Paul has been read as saying that the Jews were saved by works under the Law of Moses, but Christians are now saved by faith. And Paul certainly wrote extensively on law versus faith in Gal and Rom. But recent scholarship has concluded that we’ve badly misread the NT.
First, we’ve assumed that the dispensations – Abrahamic (or Patriarchal), Mosaic, and Christian – each repeal and replace the previous dispensation. This teaching largely comes from the study notes in the Scofield Study Bibles sold beginning in the 19th Century. In the Churches of Christ, many were converted by use of the Jule Miller filmstrips, which taught Scofield’s dispensational theory. Even those not converted using the filmstrips likely saw them in Bible class.
Scofield was, of course, correct to note the series of dispensations and that God’s relationship with his people changed in each one. But he failed to realize that the old covenants weren’t so much repealed as fulfilled and transformed by God over time. In fact, the NT is quite clear that we are saved today under the terms of God’s covenant with Abraham. This is the point of Gal 3 and Rom 4. It’s also clear that the Jews under Moses were also saved by faith due to the promises given to Abraham. Paul makes this point in Rom 4 and Eph 3, and it’s especially clear in the “rollcall of the faithful” in Heb 11, which repeatedly declares that the heroes of the OT were saved by their faith. We will cover these passages shortly.
Second, this means we misread the Gospels when we assume that Jesus is repealing the Law of Moses and legislating new laws. Rather, Jesus is often explaining how the Torah (Law of Moses) should have been understood by the Jews all along or else anticipating the fulfillment of some of these commands through the cross. But he’s not legislating.
For example, in Matthew, Jesus twice quotes Hos 6:6,
(Matt 9:13 ESV) “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
(Matt 12:7 ESV) “And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.”
Hosea predates Jesus by hundreds of years. His point is not “The rules are changing” but “You’ve misunderstood God for centuries”!
Now, if the Patriarchs were saved by faith, and Israel was saved by faith, and Christians are saved by faith – all thanks to the promises God made to Abraham – then clearly our thinking about salvation needs to center on faith.
Moreover, if we’re saved by faith because of God’s promises to Abraham, where does baptism fit in? Abraham wasn’t baptized. There was no baptism for atonement, forgiveness, or receipt of the Spirit under the Law of Moses. Did God further condition his salvation? Did he add baptism to faith? Or are we looking at things the wrong way?
We need to first go over the passages that explain how faith worked to save before Jesus, and then we’ll return to these questions.
In Rom 1 – 2, Paul demonstrates that both Jews and Gentiles need a Savior and that works cannot ever be sufficient to save. In Rom 3, Paul declares that we are saved by faith in Jesus. And then in Rom 4, he proves that faith is sufficient to save because we’re saved by the same promises that saved Abraham.
(Rom 4:1-4 ESV) What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? 2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”
At first glance, we might think that Paul is using Abraham as an example or type. That is, we tend assume that we aren’t saved exactly as Abraham was saved, but under a different dispensation that happens to have some similarities to our own. But let’s let Paul tell us what he means, rather than assuming.
First, Paul tells us that Abraham was justified by faith, not works. His faith was treated as righteousness.
(Rom 4:4-8 ESV) Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. 5 And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, 6 just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: 7 “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; 8 blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Verses 5 and 6 summarize what Paul just said about Abraham and set up David’s declaration from Psa 32:1-2, speaking during the time of the Mosaic covenant. We tend to imagine that under Moses sins were forgiven periodically by sacrifices offered under the Levitical system. But in Psa 32, David celebrates living in a state of continuous forgiveness! How is this possible?
(Psa 32:10 ESV) Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD.
David says this blessing is for the one who “trusts” God. Remember that Abraham’s faith was trusting God’s promises.
(Rom 4:9-12 ESV) Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10 How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, 12 and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
Paul explains that Abraham was saved by faith long before God asked him to be circumcised. Therefore, circumcision is not required as a condition of salvation by faith. Rather, circumcision is a “sign” and a “seal” of justification that predates his circumcision.
Abraham is therefore the father of “all who believe” (v. 11), whether or not circumcised.
(Rom 4:13-14 ESV) For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14 For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.
Paul then denies that the Torah (or Law) brought “the promise” to Abraham. Rather, salvation by faith came by the “righteousness” of faith. After all, if the Law is required for salvation, the promise to Abraham would be voided. Therefore, Paul implies, the Jews under Moses were actually saved by faith.
(Rom 4:15-17 ESV) For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression. 16 That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring – not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, 17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” – in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.
The Law only brings wrath, and so “the promise” of salvation by faith comes by grace “to the one who shares the faith of Abraham,” Paul says speaking of Israel while under the Law.
In v. 17, Paul reminds us that God promised to bless “the nations” through Abraham. Therefore, the promise of salvation by faith is now given to the Gentiles as well as the Jews – with no need for circumcision.
(Rom 4:23-25 ESV) But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, 24 but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, 25 who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.
Now, if Abraham was saved by faith, then we’re saved by faith. And if we’re saved by faith by virtue of the promises made by God to Abraham, it would only make sense that the Jews would be saved by faith under Moses as well – which Paul said earlier in the chapter. But we struggle to believe this.
In Rom 5, Paul begins to explain the reasons for the Law and the need for abounding grace. In Rom 6 – 8, Paul explains the ethical implications of salvation by faith, that is, he answers the question, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” He begins by reminding his readers of the significance of baptism for how they should live as Christians and finally culminates in chapter 8 with a discussion of the impact of the Holy Spirit on how we live.
Notice that Paul has a very high view of baptism, but he doesn’t mention baptism once in his discussion on how we’re saved. He doesn’t say that circumcision was essential but has now been replaced by the equally essential baptism. Rather, he says that circumcision was never essential and only mentions baptism to answer the question of how we should live now that we’ve been saved by faith.