Being Justified In Old Testament Times

I have spoken to Christians who believe justification by God’s grace through faith is something that began in the New Covenant period. The truth, however, is justification by God’s grace also occurred from the time of Genesis 3:15 through to the end of the Old Testament period at Jesus’ death. For God used His planning and foreknowledge of Jesus’ death and Christ’s future perfect legal standing before God the Supreme Judge as the foundation for Him crediting righteousness to various people who lived through these Old Testament times.

In Genesis 3:15, God refers to the salvation provided through Jesus’ later death: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” 1 Peter 1:19-20 and Revelation 13:8 reveal Jesus’ death was a planned reality in God’s mind even before the foundation of the world. Revelation 13:8 says: “…the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”

Romans 3:25 shows that on the basis of Jesus’ then-future death, God showed merciful forbearance towards the sins of believers committed prior to Christ’s death: “Whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed.” Without Christ’s then future death, God would have had to eternally punish every believer in Old Testament times because of their sins.

One common view suggests that believers during the Mosaic Covenant period were justified or declared righteous by God because of their mere obedience to the Law of Moses. Dr Lewis Sperry Chafer, deceased founder of the Dallas Theological Seminary in Texas in the United States, taught this. He said: “A distinction must be observed here between just men of the Old Testament and those justified according to the New Testament. According to the Old Testament men were just because they were true and faithful in keeping the Mosaic Law. Micah defines such a life after this manner: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (6:8). Men were therefore just because of their own works for God, whereas New Testament justification is God’s work for man in answer in faith (Romans 5:1).” [1]

This view is wrong. Verses such as Romans 3:20-31, Galatians 2:16 and 3:10-11 show no human has ever been declared righteous by God through their obedience to works of Law. Romans 3:20 states: “Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight…”

Note also in Romans 3:21-22, Paul states righteousness from God through faith in Jesus Christ was revealed previously in the Law of Moses and through the Old Testament prophets: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ to all and on all who believe…”





Old Testament teaching on being righteous in the Lord


The Old Testament taught that no human was right in nature or actions in God’s eyes. Psalm 143:2 states: “…for in Your sight no one living is righteous.” In the original Hebrew, the word “righteous” here is “sadaq” which means “to be righteous, be in the right, be justified, be just”. [2]

In Psalm 143:2, David is not referring to humans being righteous by God’s grace through faith in relation to any of His covenants. Instead David is saying that when God judges humans in terms of His perfectly righteous nature and standards, He declares they are all unrighteous except Christ in nature, attitudes and behaviour.

Isaiah 53:11 uses “sadaq” when it prophesies God’s Servant (Jesus Christ) would justify many people: “…By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many, for He shall bear their iniquities.”

In the original Hebrew, the word “righteousness” is “sedaqah”. “Sedaqah” is used in Isaiah 64:6: “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags…” Here we see even the godly Isaiah knew our and his righteousness was like exceptionally dirty rags.

In Isaiah 45:24-25, Isaiah uses the same word “sedaqah”: “He shall say, ‘Surely in the Lord I have righteousness and strength…In the Lord all the descendants of Israel shall be justified, and shall glory’.” These verses show in Old Testament times, God revealed only He was righteous and how we have to obtain our righteousness in Him and not in ourselves.

Job 33:23-30 speaks of similar things.[3] Job 33:23-30 demonstrates years before the New Covenant began, some believers understood justification by grace.

Do not believe there was no proclamation of God’s Word between the time of Adam’s fall and Abraham. But note Abel. Enoch and Noah were prophets of God or preachers of the Word of the Lord during their times (see Luke 11:50-51, Jude 14-15 and 2 Peter 2:15). Jude 14-15 records Enoch prophesied Christ’s coming.


Justification linked to trust in God


In the Old Testament, justification is linked to trusting in God. Psalm 37:5-6 says: “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass. He shall bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.” Remember in Old Testament times, no believer had a righteous nature in Christ. Old Testament believers were righteous in the sense of accounted (or credited) righteousness which expressed or evidenced itself in right though imperfect living.

Justification or being declared righteous by God is linked to trust in Him also in Psalm 5:11-12, 11:1-3, 31:18-19, 32:10-11, 34:21-22, 37:39-40, 52:6-8, 55:22-23, 64:10, 125:1-3 and Isaiah 26:2-4. Psalm 34:22 states: “The Lord redeems the soul of His servants, and none of those who trust in Him shall be condemned.” Psalm 64:10 declares: “The righteous shall be glad in the Lord, and trust in Him…”


Others being called righteous during the Law of Moses period


Isaiah 57:1-2, Lamentations 4:13, Amos 2:6, 5:12 and Habakkuk 1:4 all speak of righteous people living at their respective times. All these people were living in the Old Covenant Law of Moses period.

Because no one has ever perfectly obeyed the Law of Moses except Jesus Christ (see Matthew 5:17, Romans 3:20, Galatians 2:16 and 3:10-12), the people referred to in the above verses as righteous were obviously not righteous in terms of the demands of the Law of Moses. Instead, these people have a credited or imputed righteousness through God’s glorious grace. Their receiving of this grace was through trusting faith.


Being blameless in the Lord


Do not misinterpret verses in the Old Testament about believers being blameless or perfect. For example in Genesis 17:1, God commanded Abraham to be blameless. But this does not mean that Abraham was justified by perfect obedience to God’s will. But note Romans Chapter 4 reveals Abraham was justified by faith, not works.

The word “blameless” or in Hebrew “tamim” is also used in 2 Samuel 22:24 and Psalm 101:2 about David. But note David was born with a sinful nature inherited from Adam. Also David committed adultery and murder and sinned in a number of other ways (see 2 Samuel Chapter 11, Psalm 32:5 and 40:12). So a person can be blameless in God’s eyes despite having a sinful nature and committing sin. Therefore, being blameless here does not mean the person will have never sinned. Instead being blameless involves the person:


·         having a trusting faith in God which continually receives His forgiveness and the removal of their guilt or blame and

·         turning from all their known sins.


Abraham’s case


Genesis 15:6 records Abraham was justified by God through faith: “And he believed in the Lord, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” Romans 4:1-23 also reveals Abraham was justified in God’s sight by grace through faith. In other words, God credited righteousness to Abraham’s account without him being perfectly obedient to the Law of God written on his conscience.

Romans 4:1-5 says: “What then shall we say that Abraham our father has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness.”

Romans 4:16 and 20-22 relates to this also: “Therefore it is of faith that it might be according to grace…He (Abraham) did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith…And therefore ‘it was accounted to him for righteousness’.” The word “accounted” here refers to God as Supreme Ruler and Judge crediting Jesus’ perfectly right standing before Him to Abraham. Such credited righteousness refers to the same thing as righteousness by God’s grace through faith.

Abraham was born with Adam’s guilt debited to him (see Romans 5:12-19). Also, Abraham inherited a sinful nature from Adam (see Genesis 8:21, Ephesians 2:3). So Abraham was under the sentence of physical and eternal spiritual death which all descendants of Adam are (see Romans 1:32, 6:23, 8:10, Genesis 3:19 and Revelation 20:13-15). [4]




The Hebrew word “hen” meaning grace is used in Genesis 6:8 in reference to God’s relationship to Noah: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” This grace is related to the credited righteousness Noah received by his faith.

Hebrews 11:7 records: “By faith Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” Noah participated in righteousness by faith. He was not righteous by works of Law or by perfect obedience to God. Genesis 9:20-21 records how Noah became drunk at one time. This was a sin.




In 2 Peter 2:7-8, the Apostle Peter says Lot was a righteous man: “and delivered righteous Lot, who was oppressed by the filthy conduct of the wicked (for that righteous man, dwelling among them, tormented his righteous soul from day to day by seeing and hearing their lawless deeds).”

But in terms of the written Mosaic Law or Law of God on conscience, Lot was a condemned sinner. Genesis 20:30-38 shows Lot became so drunk he had sex with his two daughters. Verses 33 and 35 say he was unaware he had done these things. Leviticus 4:13-15, 5:14-19 and 20:1-9 prove God still regards unintentional sin as incurring guilt. Lot committed the intentional sin of getting drunk and the unintentional sin of having sex with his daughters causing them to become pregnant.

Genesis 19:8 reveals Lot foolishly offered his two virgin daughters to the violent rapists of Sodom and Gomorrah in order to try to protect God’s angels. This was a sin also, no matter how worthy its aim. Also, Lot was born with Adam’s guilt accounted to him and inherited a sinful nature from him.

Because of Lot’s personal, inherited and accounted sins, it was impossible for him to be classified as righteous except in terms of God’s undeserved grace.




In Romans 4:6-9, Paul says David wrote about imputed or credited righteousness: “just as David also describes the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.’ Does this blessedness then come upon the circumcised only, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.” David’s words here come from Psalm 32:1-2 and are like the New Covenant teaching of imputed righteousness found in 2 Corinthians 5:19.

In the same Psalm, David spoke of his own sins. Verse 5 says: “I acknowledged my sin to You, and my iniquity I have not hidden. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin.”

2 Samuel 11:1-27 shows David committed adultery with Bathsheba and murdered her husband. This was far more than was needed to condemn David to eternal punishment.

In Psalm 40:12, David revealed he had so many sins at one time, they were or possibly seemed like they were “more than the hairs on my head”. In Psalm 19:12, David admits he even had sins hidden from his own awareness.

In Psalm 14:1-3, 53:1-3, 130:3 and 143:2, David said every person sins. Psalm 130:3 states: “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” Psalm 143:2 says: “…for in Your sight no one living is righteous.”

Even though David had committed adultery, murder and other sins, God forgave his sins and credited him as righteous by grace through faith.

By faith, David had a heart to do God’s will. Despite David’s dreadful falls, Acts 13:22 records God said about David: “…I have found David the son of Jesse, a man after My own heart, who will do all My will.”

David’s words in Psalm 18:20-27 about being recompensed according to his righteousness must be understood in the context of his other words. In Psalm 18:1-2, David showed he knew everything good in himself, this including his God-given righteousness, came only from God’s grace and strength: “I will love You, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; my God, my strength, in whom I will trust; my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.”

In Psalm 25:6-11, David said how great was his sin and how he had been sinful in his youth. [5] In these verses, David asked for the pardon of his sins not as a merited recompense or reward but instead as an expression of God’s undeserved mercy and lovingkindness.

Refer also to David’s words in Psalm 103:8-14: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy. He will not always strive with us, nor will He keep His anger forever. He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” Here David emphasises God’s grace and mercy towards those who lovingly fear Him but who fall into sin at times.

In Psalm 103:10 and 12, David teaches the grace concepts of God not treating believers as their sins deserve and Him removing their transgressions as far as the east is from the west. The word “transgressions” here relates to disobediences to the Law of Moses. Living during the Mosaic Covenant period, David is here teaching according to God’s marvellous grace.

David experienced God’s grace or unmerited favour, as Stephen’s words in Acts 7:46 show. David could teach much on God’s grace because he had experienced it much.

The Psalms of David are full of teaching about God’s grace and mercy towards believers who fall into sin and of God being the Source of strength and goodness in each believer’s life. David could teach much on God’s grace because he had experienced it much.




Psalm 106:30-31 speaks of another person who had righteousness credited or accounted to him during the Old Covenant: “Then Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was stopped. And that was accounted to him for righteousness to all generations forevermore.” Phinehas’ faith is outwardly expressed in Numbers 25:1-13.


Do not misinterpret Solomon


1 Kings 8:31-32 and 2 Chronicles 6:22-23 record part of one of Solomon’s prayers to God. 1 Kings 8:31-32 states: “When anyone sins against his neighbor, and is forced to take an oath, and comes and takes an oath before Your altar in this temple, then hear in heaven, and act, and judge Your servants, condemning the wicked, bringing his way on his head, and justifying the righteous by giving him according to his righteousness.”

Solomon is not here referring to being justified by God in relation to eternal salvation. Instead, he is speaking of God showing whether individual Israelites had acted righteously or wickedly in relation to the treatment of their neighbour and their subsequent oath to God.

Solomon is asking God to demonstrate to other humans whether the individual Israelite had acted in righteousness or wickedness, by Him sending on the person the earthly rewards or earthly punishments promised in the Mosaic Law. Solomon was referring to the type of oaths listed in Exodus 22:10-11. [6]



A seeming contradiction


In Ecclesiastes 7:20, its author says: “For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin.” But in Ecclesiastes 7:15 and 8:14, he speaks of seeing righteous men. Ecclesiastes 7:15 states: “I have seen everything in my days of vanity: There is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs life in his wickedness.”

The author of Ecclesiastes was not contradicting himself. In Ecclesiastes 7:15 and 8:14, he was referring to humans with credited righteousness by God’s grace. In Ecclesiastes 7:20, he is saying no human is righteous in his own nature or through his own self efforts.


Old Testament saints having faith in the Son of God


In Old Testament times, faith in the Lord involved faith in the Son of God without believers being aware of this. This is because of the nature of the Trinity. The Lord is God the Father (see Luke 10:21), God the Son (see 1 Corinthians 1:9) and God the Holy Spirit (see Luke 4:18 and 2 Corinthians 3:17).

In Matthew 22:41-45, Jesus taught that He as the Son of God was the Lord. Christ quotes from Psalm 110:1 which uses the Hebrew word  “Adonay” for its second usage of the word “Lord”. The word “Adonay” is used in the Old Testament as a substitute for the Name “YHWH”. [7]

“Adonay” is combined with other Names of God in a number of places throughout the Old Testament. For example, Psalm 38:15 and 86:12 use “Lord my God” – Lord here being “Adonay” and God being “Elohim”. Note “Elohim” is the plural word for God. The plural nature of the word “Elohim” supports the broader Biblical teaching that God is a Trinity. In Isaiah 25:8, Jeremiah 44:26, 46:10 (twice) and 50:25, God is called “Adonay YHWH”.

In John 8:58, Jesus Christ said He is the great “I AM” – the same Name God gave Himself in Exodus 3:14.

So even without understanding the nature of the Trinity and without knowing the predicted “Son of David” or “Messiah” was going to be called “Jesus Christ”, Old Testament believers had saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through their more generalised trusting faith in “Adonay YHWH” or “Adonay Elohim” or “I AM” or other Names of God. The Names of God represent His nature, Person and character.


A common false idea


Some may argue, “No believer could participate in any of the infinite grace and associated blessings made available through Jesus’ death until He had actually died.” But this is seen to be wrong when we consider that before Jesus’ death, the Apostles and the seventy disciples who were given authority and power over all demons and to heal the sick, were given this on the basis of Jesus’ then future death. Luke 9:1-6 and 10:1-20 record Jesus sending these leaders out with delegated authority from Him.


Bible Study Questions


1.       On what basis did God credit a righteous standing before Him to believers in Old Testament times?

2.       What verses show the error of the view that people were justified by good works in obedience to the Mosaic Law under the Mosaic Covenant?

3.       Explain the meanings of Psalm 143:2 and Isaiah 64:6.

4.       Which Old Testament verses link justification to having trust in Him?

5.       What does being blameless in the Lord mean?

6.       Explain what Genesis 15:6 and Romans 4:1-23 teach about Abraham being justified by God’s grace through faith.

7.       What do Genesis 6:8 and Hebrews 11:7 reveal about Noah being justified by God?

8.       2 Peter 2:7-8 refers to Lot as righteous. Was Lot righteous in terms of obedience to the Mosaic Law and to his God-given conscience? Provide verses as support for your answer.

9.       Discuss what David taught about the sinfulness of every human and God forgiving and crediting as righteous people who were previously unrepentant sinners.

10.   Explain how Old Testament saints had faith in the Son of God.


[1] Sperry Chafer, “Systematic Theology”, Volume 7, page 219.

[2] Vine, page 205.

[3] Job 33:23-30 says: “If there is a messenger for him, a mediator, one among a thousand, to show man His uprightness, then He is gracious to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom’; his flesh shall be young like a child’s, he shall return to the days of his youth. He shall pray to God, and He will delight in him, he shall see His face with joy, for He restores to man His righteousness. Then he looks at men and says, ‘I have sinned, and perverted what was right, and it did not profit me.’ He will redeem his soul from going down to the Pit, and his life shall see the light. Behold, God works all these things, twice, in fact, three times with a man, to bring back his soul from the Pit, that he may be enlightened with the light of life.” Note verse 26 here uses the Hebrew word “seqadah” when referring to God’s righteousness.

[4] Matthew 22:32 reveals Abraham, Isaac and Jacob now enjoy eternal life: “’I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” None of these three men obtained eternal life through obedience to the Law of Moses. The Mosaic Law had not been given when they were alive. As Galatians 3:21 shows, there has never been any law – the Mosaic or any other – which has been able to impart eternal life to sinful humans. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were given eternal life by God’s grace through faith. They did not receive this eternal life during their earthly years, but after physical death.

[5] Psalm 25:6-11 says: “Remember, O Lord, Your tender mercies and Your lovingkindness, for they are from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions; according to Your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord. Good and upright is the Lord; therefore He teaches sinners in the way. The humble He guides in justice, and the humble He teaches His way. All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth, to such as keep His covenant and His testimonies. For Your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.”

[6] Exodus 22:10-11 says: “If a man delivers to his neighbor a donkey, a ox, a sheep, or any animal to keep, and it dies, is hurt, or driven away, no one seeing it, then an oath of the Lord shall be between them both, that he has not put his hand into his neighbor’s goods; and the owner of it shall accept that, and he shall not make it good.”

[7] Brown, Driver and Briggs, page 11 and Harris, Archer and Waltke, Volume 1, page 13.



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