A Question I Was Asked:

"Evangelism has always said that nobody can be saved if they don't know and accept Jesus. But what about the Old Testament believers?"

Okay, here is the question in full:

"Evangelism has always said that nobody can be saved if they don't know and accept Jesus. But what about the Old Testament believers? I am asking you this question because I know you have given a lot of thought to it and you have made some interesting comments about it."

My Reply:

Yes, I have given this subject a lot of consideration over the years which is why - around 4-5 years ago - I came to accept what is called, 'Evangelical Inclusivism.' What is that? Well, it is 'evangelical' because it holds the high evangelical view of Scripture, i.e., that Scripture is truly inspired by God. It is 'Inclusivist' because it maintains that God is not restricted to only saving certain of Israel (Old Covenant), or only those who become Christians (New Covenant), but is well able to include 'outsiders' in the Body of Christ (just as Israel welcomed 'outsiders' such as Jethro, Ruth, Naomi and Rahab; these people were not Israelites yet were plainly favoured in God's eyes). However well-meaning, Exclusivism and Restrictivism - to my mind - do not faithfully represent all of Scripture, just particular parts. Those theological strands believe that a huge majority of mankind will go to Hell and, indeed, were only really 'fashioned' for Hell. Only a tiny minority will be saved.

To be frank, I now find such a narrow view of salvation unscriptural; it is also overly affected by a whole philosophy which is rooted in Augustinianism and reached its uncompromising peak in hyper-Calvinism. But I should just point out, in fairness to the Restrictivist view, that Restrictivists do fully accept that the men and women of God in the Old Testament are indeed saved through the blood of Christ which can be applied to people of any age. But this truly biblical perspective does raise many questions. It tells us, for example, that personal knowledge of Christ - and what He achieved upon the cross, and in His resurrection - are not necessary for salvation. Indeed, most (though not all), evangelicals also believe that tiny children dying in their infancy, as well as the mentally handicapped are covered by the blood of Christ. Truthfully, this is already 'inclusivism' and goes beyond what the older exclusivists used to believe. I like the John Sanders quote on this. John said, 'Christ is ontologically necessary for salvation, but not epistemologically necessary.' In other words, only Christ can save - there is no other gateway into Eternal Life, but Scripture itself (Old Testament) also shows us that personal knowledge of the life of Christ, and what He achieved, is not necessary for salvation.

Faith and trust are the overriding factors which one seems to find with Old Testament believers; they needed to 'call upon the Name of the Lord' (Genesis 4:26). Of course, ontologically their salvation was dependent upon the atonement of Christ. As Paul points out, they 'drank from the rock of Christ' (1 Corinthians 10:4). Yet Old Testament believers came to faith and experienced it differently. For Abraham, it was all about the promise of a son and of God fashioning a separate people through his descendants, for Gideon it was all about success in battle against the enemies of God. The common factor is they threw themselves upon God's mercy and thereafter trusted Him to fulfil His will in their lives. But they probably understood little about the blood of a Christ who was yet to come and - without Whom - they could not have been saved. But faith, trust and a willingness to walk with God were probably the only spiritual factors they understood.
In our day, it is better to have a knowledge of Christ and we should pass this vital information to others wherever we may, and wherever they are willing to listen. This, after all, is the 'Great Commission.' However, with knowledge comes responsibility and where people hear the truth about Christ but then reject it they come into serious and grievous spiritual danger. Yet - without doubt - many have lived and died since the time of Christ, yet never heard His Name but are still saved where they are the subjects of God's election and grace. Not hearing the Name of Christ is not damning, but only clear rejection where one has heard (Romans 10:13; Hebrews 10:26-31). Oh, the other thing I should probably point out is that Evangelical Inclusivism is very definitely not Pluralism (all religions lead to God and can save). I hope that these comments help you.
Robin A. Brace, 2007.

There is an exhaustive theological consideration of Evangelical Inclusivism here.