Paul puts in some very interesting thoughts concerning those who lived and died before Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He said,
God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (25-27)
In this passage, Paul talks about God’s justice. And he says that God showed justice by not punishing the sins committed before the cross. What does he mean by this? Does this mean that all that lived and died before the cross are saved?
No, it doesn’t mean this. One thing that Paul makes clear through the scriptures is that all are saved by faith. He says in verse 28,
For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (28)
And as we will see in chapter 4, he goes all the way back to the time of Abraham to point out that even Abraham was saved by his faith.
So if a person did not have faith in God, they were not saved, but condemned.
However, Abraham, Moses, David, and all the rest of the Old Testament saints who did put their faith in God had a problem. All the sacrifices they gave as an expression of their faith were not effective in taking away their sins. All the sacrifices they gave were mere pictures of what Jesus would do hundreds of years after they died. (We’ll talk about this more when I eventually get around to blogging Hebrews). But it wasn’t fair to punish them just because Jesus had not come yet to die for their sins.
So instead, because they believed in this Messiah to come, God accepted their faith as righteousness, and put off the justice they deserved for their sin. And when Jesus went to the cross, God put all of Abraham’s sins, Moses’ sin, David’s sins, and all the rest of the Old Testament saints’ sins upon Jesus. And at that point, their sins were completely wiped out by the blood of Christ, and they could enter the presence of God in heaven.
God shows that same kind of forbearance and justice with us. Though we all deserved death for our sins, and God could have immediately put us to death, he showed forbearance. He worked in our lives, preparing our hearts for Jesus. And then when we put our faith in him, God wiped out our sin just as he did with the Old Testament saints.
He did this, not with a forgiveness that says, “Oh, I know you did wrong, but I’m a nice God so I’ll just forgive you.” He did it with a forgiveness that says, “What you did was horrible, and a price needed to be paid. Justice needed to be served. But Jesus paid that price, and in his death, justice was served. Now because of your faith, you are forgiven.”
But this message is important for you if you are not a Christians as well. Remember that God is a God of forbearance. But he is also a God of justice. He is patient. He will wait for you to respond to him. But he will not wait forever. And if you don’t accept his grace, you will receive his justice. So don’t wait. Receive his grace while you can. As Paul wrote in another passage,
I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. (II Corinthians 6:2)