Working Salvation with Your Own Hand

Gospel is found all throughout the Old Testament. We see clear pointers to Jesus in the tabernacle, in the Passover, in Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac, or in Noah’s ark. But we can also find pictures of the gospel in places we do not expect as well.

I found myself thinking of the more subtle presence of the gospel when reading about three strange yet similar incidents in the life of David in 1 Samuel 24-26. In 1 Samuel 24, David has the chance to kill King Saul in a cave. David nearly does, but instead cuts off a corner of the king’s robe. And David feels guilt for stretching out his hand against the Lord’s anointed and repents. In 1 Samuel 25, David straps on his sword and moves to kill Nabal, a foolish man who insulted him. Abigail, a godly woman, intercedes with David and prevents him from killing the unworthy Nabal. In 1 Samuel 26, David will not allow Abishai to strike Saul down when they sneaked into the camp of Israel and took Saul’s spear and water pitcher.

Where do I see gospel in these incidents? Look at David’s response to Abigail.

1 Samuel 25:32-33 – 32 And David said to Abigail, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you this day to meet me! 33 Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from working salvation with my own hand!

David thanked Abigail for keeping him from working salvation with his own hand. Tie that thought back to the incident with Saul in the cave or in the camp, and you will see that, in those incidents too, David did not use his own strength to accomplish his own physical salvation. And there is where I think the gospel pointer is found. In our salvation, the one thing that we cannot do is accomplish our own salvation by the strength of our own hands.

When we are lost, we have no hope of saving ourselves. The offense we have committed in sinning against the Lord is infinitely great. We could never pay the penalty for our own sin without spending eternity in hell. Also, the gap between our own righteousness and that required by God for us to be welcome in his presence is infinite. Thus, we cannot behave well enough, even were we to be perfect from today forward, to earn entrance into the presence of the Lord. No, we cannot accomplish our own salvation by our own hands. We must instead trust in the Lord to accomplish our salvation for us.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is that Jesus, God the Son, has in fact accomplished our salvation for us. Jesus pays our penalty, a debt we could never repay. The Lord imputes to us Christ’s righteousness, granting us the ability to stand in God’s presence which we could never earn. And all of this comes to us, not by our works, but by God’s grace through faith in Christ.

The temptation to earn your way into God’s favor is a large one. And it is an anti-gospel. Thus, we should praise God for every picture he gives us to remind us that we are not to seek to work our own salvation.

A Miraculous Feeding and a Pointer to Jesus

In Luke 24, the risen Lord Jesus had a conversation with 2 disciples on a roadway. In that conversation, Jesus explained to the men how the whole of the Old Testament points toward him. Many Christians have said that it would have been so wonderful to have listened to that conversation. And I agree. I would love to have heard Jesus telling us how certain events in the Old Testament, even certain narratives, are actually hints about him and his glory.

I thought of this passage in my daily reading as I came across a short little story in the life of Elisha. In the early chapters of 2 Kings, we get to see how the Spirit of God is on Elisha just as the Spirit was on Elijah. And God repeatedly shows in chapter 4 his presence in the ministry of Elisha through the miraculous.

1 Kings 4:42-44 – 42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’ ” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.

Here we have a miracle. There is a fairly large crowd, and an amount of food that is too small for them. There are loaves of bread, but not enough to satisfy the men. But Elisha orders the food to be passed out. And when it happens, there is enough for every man to eat and be satisfied. And there is some left over.

That miracle, in 2 Kings, shows that the Lord is with Elisha. It shows that the miraculous power of God is on him. And it is one of those hidden gems in the Old Testament where, once we have seen Jesus, we will realize that he is greater than all who went before him.

Of course we know that Jesus did a miracle like this one, but on a much grander scale. Jesus fed a crowd of 5,000 men, not counting women and children. He did so with only 5 loaves and 2 small fish. And in doing so, Jesus showed himself to be great. That miracle from Jesus showed that he has the Spirit of God, like Elijah and Elisha, but far more. Of course, it also shows that Jesus is the God who provides bread in the wilderness just like God provided the manna during the exodus.

Altogether, the beauty I see here is the reminder that the Bible is telling God’s story. The Bible is all about Jesus. Even the miracles of the prophets, even the ones we tend to forget, point us to the presence and power of God. These miracles remind us of the greater glory of Jesus.

Did Sacrifices Work?

In the book of Leviticus, the Lord set forth for the people a system of sacrifice, offerings for a variety of purposes. When the people sinned against the Lord, he gave them particular things to do in order to be forgiven. And the forgiveness of sin never came about without the death of an animal. A substitute was put to death in the place of the sinful person. And, hopefully, the people saw that sin is an ugly, bloody, deadly business.


And some might wonder why this would work. Why would God allow the blood of an animal to be shed in place of the blood of a sinful person who, according to God’s own law, ought to die for his own sin? How can a bull or a goat or a lamb or a bird be enough to take away my guilt?


Hebrews 10:4 – For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.


Then we read the book of Hebrews, and we see that it is impossible that the blood of such animals could take away sin. There is no way that a bull’s blood is sufficient payment for the wrongs that I have committed before the Lord. There is no way that a sheep’s life can substitute for my own, not really. There is no way that a finite animal could ever make up for my falling infinitely short of God’s perfection.


So, obviously the offerings didn’t work, right?


Leviticus 4:20 – Thus shall he do with the bull. As he did with the bull of the sin offering, so shall he do with this. And the priest shall make atonement for them, and they shall be forgiven.


Note that last phrase, “they shall be forgiven.” Moses did not tell the priests that the offering would not work. In fact, he makes it clear that the sacrifice, the blood, the transference of guilt, the substitution, all of it would lead to forgiveness. This was not a pretend forgiveness. God said they would be forgiven of their sin if they went through this system.


So, what gives? How do we understand the sacrifice? Hebrews says that the blood of the animal is not enough. Leviticus says they will be forgiven.


Romans 3:23-26 – 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.


Look at Paul’s explanation for a few of the reasons for the death of Jesus on the cross. Paul tells us that Jesus died to accomplish something glorious. Jesus died for propitiation. He died as an offering for sins in order to take away the wrath of God and turn God’s face of favor toward the saved.


We know all that pretty much instinctively if we grew up in a gospel-preaching church. But the next phrase in verse 25 is not one many dwell on: “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.” That sentence tells us another reason for the death of Jesus. It says that this, this sacrifice, this propitiation, was for a purpose. It was to prove the righteousness of God. It was to prove that God had never and would never wink at sin and just let it go. The death of Jesus was to prove that God always rightly, justly, and perfectly punishes all sin, all of it. God had, in the time before Jesus, not perfectly punished all sin. He had passed over former sins. How? He had forgiven people who had made the offerings like those in Leviticus, even though the blood of those animals and the lives of those animals were nowhere near enough to be a just and right substitute for the sins of men. Jesus died to show that God is perfectly righteous.


In verse 26, Paul further says, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” God is just and must be just. God also desires to demonstrate his grace. The sacrifice of Jesus allows both to happen, as God is proved to be just, rightly dealing with sin with no tolerance for evil, and at the same time the one who justifies, who makes right in his sight, the one who has faith in Jesus. So God is both perfectly and totally just as he is also perfectly and justly merciful, facts proved by the blood of Jesus.


But what about those sacrifices of old? Did they work? Yes and no. The blood of those animals never took away sin. But the blood of those animals pointed to Jesus whose blood would pay the price for sins. It was as if God was reminding himself that all sins would be perfectly punished. Either the sinful man would be justly judged in hell for his sin, or he would be justly forgiven, not because of the blood of the animal, but because of the infinitely perfect sacrifice of the Son of God.


Then, were the saved in the old Testament saved by works? No, at least not by their own works. They were saved by God’s grace through faith. They believed God enough to obey his commands to make the sacrifice that would ultimately point to Jesus. They were saved, not by the action of the offering of the bull, nor by the blood of the bull, but by faith in the God of the promise who commanded the offering of the bull, the offering that points all to Jesus.