Many theologians teach a static understanding of the Bible. We will call them Covenant theologians for convenience (although some who claim this are not Covenant theologians). These theologians will say, “since Adam and Eve, people had to believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to be saved.” They then try pointing to various episodes in the Bible to prove this teaching. Naturally, to claim ancientness to this teaching they will assert Genesis was preaching the gospel from the beginning. They turn to Genesis 3 for this:
Gen 3:15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
They say this is a reference to Christ and cite this as when the Gospel was preached to Adam and Eve. To non-Christians and Christians who are not wedded to wrangling doctrine out of vague verses, this does not even pass the sniff test. How on earth would Adam and Eve know this was a reference to Jesus? How does this even allude to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection? How can this possibly, in any way, be an allusion to the gospel that Paul preached in 1 Corinthians 15?
To the extent of our knowledge, Adam and Eve never went to heaven before (and after) Christ died and never knew of the gospel that Paul preached. Specifically, we have no evidence that anyone before Christ’s death actually understood the basic salvation message that Christ was going to die, be buried, and rise again. Even as Jesus specifically told his disciples this, they still had no understanding and even rebuked Jesus (Mar 8:32). No person (especially religious Jews) understood the Messiah as one that was going to die as a sacrificial lamb. The Genesis passage could equally be interpreted as an allusion to the gospel of the kingdom.
Another example cited of faith based salvation is of Abraham. Two New Testament authors reference Abraham’s salvation, James and Paul. Dispensationalists (aka those who recognize that both authors taught different gospels) would predict that these references would be dialectically opposed.
James writes (in a letter intended to show “the twelve tribes” that they needed good works to be saved):
Jas 2:20 But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?
Jas 2:21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?
Jas 2:24 Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Paul writes (in the context of saying that attempting to do works put a curse on believers):
Gal 2:16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.
Gal 3:6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
Gal 3:11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.
Paul explicitly tells the reader the “gospel” which Abraham believed for righteousness:
Gal 3:8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.
Gal 3:9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.
So the object of Abraham’s belief was not that Christ would come, died, be buried, and rise again, but that God would eventually use the Jews to reach the gentiles. But this was no secret; in fact this is what the Jews expected, “To be a priest nation”:
Exo 19:5 Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
Exo 19:6 And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.
To the Covenant theologian, who claims the gospel (as preached in 1 Cor 15) was forever known and was always the method of salvation, they run into an acute problem; Paul says the gospel to Abraham was entirely different than the gospel Paul preached to the Gentiles. Did Paul teach that the Gentiles had to believe Israel would be the medium of their salvation? That seems like a circular and odd gospel to be preached to the gentiles. Instead, their object of faith was in Christ, a concept only tangentially related to what Abraham believed.
In James, the Covenant theologian’s problems only seem to multiply. The object of faith to which he refers is not the gospel to Abraham as described in Galatians 3. It is that Abraham would have countless offspring. James says about Abraham’s faith:
Jas 2:23 And the scripture was fulfilled which saith, Abraham believed God, and it was imputed unto him for righteousness: and he was called the Friend of God.
This is a quote from Genesis 15:
Gen 15:4 And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir.
Gen 15:5 And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be.
Gen 15:6 And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.
So, was Abraham made righteous by believing he would have a lot of children or because he thought his children would bring the Gentiles to God? Paul and James vary, and for good reason: they are each using one of the foremost Biblical forefathers to parallel to their respective gospels. Neither respective allusion fits perfectly with what either Paul or James was preaching, but it helped give primacy to their teachings.
Those who claim that “faith” has always been the method of salvation should clarify what they mean. Do they mean faith in anything, from space aliens to lottery tickets? When theologians try to overemphasis words, ensure they are being consistent, not using “bait and switch” tactics, and, above all, understanding all teachings in context.