by Matt Slick
The people who died before Christ was crucified were saved the same way as those who die after the crucifixion, by faith. The people of the Old Testament time looked forward to the coming Messiah. They trusted God according to the knowledge that they had - as would all people everywhere who were to have faith in God. But we who are alive after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and who also have the New Testament documents, are at a great advantage. We can read the Scriptures with far more clarity and understanding than those in the Old Testament times. We know about the work of Christ on the cross. Those who died before Jesus never had the opportunity to trust in him because his crucifixion hadn't happened yet, but they were saved by faith the same as we are.
Salvation includes justification. Justification is a legal standing before God where we are declared righteous before God regarding his holy law. This is possible because Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross (1 Peter 2:24). When we trust in Christ by faith, his righteousness is reckoned to our account (Philippians 3:9). So, we are justified by faith (Romans 5:1). This is the same as those in the Old Testament. In other words, even though they didn't know about Jesus, they still trusted in God and were also justified by faith.
"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? 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? “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” 4 Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness," (Romans 4:1-5).
As you can see, verse three speaks in the past tense: “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” It was Abraham's belief in God that was reckoned as righteousness, and that was before Christ was ever born. Likewise, notice in verse five it speaks in the present tense: "But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness." So, those before Jesus (past tense) and those after Jesus (present tense) are saved the same way, by faith. The people in the Old Testament had faith and trusted in God, as Abraham did, and it was reckoned to them as righteousness (Rom. 4:3). Our faith is a little bit more precise in that we put our faith in what Christ has done on the cross, but it is also by faith.
So, the people who died before Christ was crucified are justified the same way that we are today, by faith.