Human history could be described as a sunrise. The point where the Bible divides between the Old and New Testaments is the point at which the sun starts to rise just above the horizon. Prior to that point, man walked in darkness. Men were still saved by grace through faith, but God’s promise—the covenant of grace—was harder to see.
Graciously, however, God has provided us with proverbial 20/20 hindsight in the form of the New Testament. The apostolic comments on the Old Testament function as something of a lighthouse that shines back on the Old Testament to explain what God was doing during before Christ came. By way of example, most Christians would agree that the seed promised in Genesis 3:15, which was the very first revelation of God’s plan to save mankind through Jesus (Revelation 20:2, 10). The reason we understand this is because of the light the New Testament shines on this promise.
In the early chapters of Genesis, we read of Abel offering a sacrifice that God accepted while Cain was rejected. What was the difference? We read further of Enoch walking with God and being caught up with God. Why did that happen? Why did God do that? More broadly, how were people saved before Jesus came? We’ll need to turn to the New Testament for answers.
In Hebrews 11:4, the author explains that by faith, Abel offered a sacrifice more excellent than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous. Now, righteousness is a covenant term and Abel was declared righteous because of his faith. Righteous doesn’t just mean “goodness.” It always stands in relation to a covenant. Abel was righteous within God’s covenant and he was righteous because of his faith—the only way men can be made righteous.
A few generations later, Enoch walked with God by faith and was spared from death because of it. Salvation and life were given to him on the condition of faith. We can see that the theme of redemptive history—God’s covenant in which He grants salvation to man on the basis of faith—goes all the way back to the very beginning and it’s going to keep going.
Genesis 6:9 tells us that Noah was a righteous man, but it doesn’t give us a clear understanding of how he became righteous. The New Testament lighthouse comes to our aid when it tells us in Hebrews 11:7 that Noah built the ark by faith, saving his family and becoming an heir of the righteousness which is by faith. Noah had the only kind of righteousness that man can have: that of faith.
God’s covenant with Noah and all creation was established through Noah’s faith. If Noah had disbelieved God’s promise, all mankind and creation would have been destroyed. By God’s grace, He granted Noah faith and thereby preserved him, his family, and the entire world—establishing his covenant and preparing the way for Jesus to come.
The Abrahamic Covenant
The next major event in redemptive history is the Abrahamic covenant. God covenanted with Abraham to make him a great nation, to make his name great, to bless him, and to make him a blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1–3). Abraham believed God, and God counted that faith as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). After these things happened, Abraham was given the covenantal sign of circumcision.
According to Romans 4:11, circumcision was given to Abraham as a seal of the righteousness he had by faith. That is, circumcision didn’t make Abraham righteous; rather, it was a sign of his righteousness which he had by faith. It’s sort of like a tattoo that members of certain branches of the military get. Having the right tattoo doesn’t make you as tough as a Navy SEAL, even if it is the mark of a Navy SEAL.
Abraham was instructed that all of his children, as soon as they reached eight days old, were to be circumcised. This circumcision was to be a sign of the righteousness that they had by faith and it would continue on into the Mosaic covenant. Every single one of Abraham’s children (and his children’s children, etc.) was to be circumcised. For many, this circumcision would be a true sign of actual righteousness given by faith—as with Abraham. For others, this circumcision would be a lie—a false tattoo. It would set them apart as being a part of God’s covenant with Adam, but because they didn’t have faith it would serve to condemn them in that covenant rather than grant them blessing. We’ll talk more about that later, though.
Often we get the impression that there was no covenant established with the people of God until the Old Covenant (or perhaps Abraham), and to be fair, the Old Covenant was certainly the most clear and formalized covenant. But God was in the business of declaring sinners righteous by faith long before Jesus, Moses, or Abraham appeared on stage. Although the spotlight certainly shone brighter later on in redemptive history.
This is the consistent flow throughout Scripture, including under the Old Testament Law. In the next post, we’ll look at how the covenant with Israel at Sinai was not a covenant of works, but instead a part of the covenant of grace which points to Christ.