God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment by James Hamilton is a superb book in so many ways (and only $7.69 on Kindle). If I recall, I think John Piper said that it was one of very few books that he read all the way through without putting it down. Given that it’s 640 pages long, I would have starved if I’d tried that. However, it’s certainly a compelling, and even an exciting read. A terrific amount of work went into this book, and every serious student of the Old Testament should get it and read it (often).

One of my greatest joys in reading the book was an early paragraph that seemed to clearly state that Old Testament believers were saved by grace through faith in a coming Messiah.

Even though members of the old covenant remnant lived before Jesus, saving faith for them was explicit trust in the promises of God. The promises of God began in Genesis 3:15, with the promise of a seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Many of the Old Testament’s promises concern an anointed Redeemer, who came to be referred to as the messiah, whom God would raise up to accomplish the salvation of his people. So even though Old Testament saints did not know that the messiah would be named Jesus, grow up in Nazareth, and so forth, in the words of Genesis 3:15 they heard God promise to raise up a man who would save them. Faith came by hearing, and they trusted God to keep his word [57].

At last, I thought, a modern Old Testament theology (it covers the NT too) that does not present Old Testament salvation as a confused mixture of mere theistic faith + works + sacrifices. Here we have a Christ-centered view of Old Testament salvation, in line with the historic Reformed, Presbyterian, and Baptist confessions.

Or do we?

The Levitical system operates only by faith: Israel must believe that Yahweh really is in the tabernacle, that he really is holy, that sin and uncleanness really do make it dangerous to be near Yahweh, and that the prescribed sacrifice really will atone for sin. All of this must be taken on faith [68].

Hmmm: “The prescribed sacrifices really will atone for sin?” Surely some mistake? Let me read on….

The Levitical system only works if the worshiper believes that Yahweh is in the midst of the people, believes that he is holy, believes that sacrifice must be offered for cleansing, and lives in a way that corresponds with these beliefs (e.g., Lev. 15:31; 22:9) [110].

O dear, we seem to be back to theistic faith + works + sacrifices again. Maybe (hopefully) I’m reading this wrong. Then a few pages later…

The regulations set forth in Leviticus are a judgment, and they make it possible for people to substitute animals of sacrifice that will be judged in their place, that they might be saved [114].

Well, now I’m totally deflated. We’ve gone from clear Messiah-centered faith in Genesis to a confused muddle in Leviticus.  We’ve gone from Christ + Nothing = Everything (HT Tullian), to Works + Ritual + Theism = Everything. Please someone tell me that I’m adding this up this wrong.

I’m still recommending Hamilton’s book (highly). I’ve learned more about the Old Testament from this book than any other I’ve read in the past 5 years. But I do want to flag this unfortunate confusion, a confusion that seems to be shared by another 600+ pager, John Sailhamer’s epic and excellent work on the Pentateuch (see Is Moses in heaven? How?).

I hope to return to this subject tomorrow and ask, “What did the Levitical sacrifices really do?”

Update: Thanks to Jim Hamilton for some clarifications below.

  • Mv_49496

    love your recommendations to read with discernment and your concise explaination of where the book strays from the Word. sometimes people either believe everything they read without Word-checking or getting worried that they will fall victim to that, fail to read widely. thanks for that

  • MarkandKristi Olivero

    Is this approach to the OT sacrificial system as prismatic bent from using the Dispensational lens? Both Jim Hamilton and John Sailhammer have degrees from Dallas. Didn’t C. I. Scofield set for similar ideas about a two lane avenue in salvation?

  • Andrew Suttles

    Dr. M -What text on Old Testament theology would you recommend for an educated layman? I was thinking of reading this work after something like Goldworthy, but perhaps House, Dempster, or Waltke would be better.I’d like to work through a couple modern treatments before I dive into Vos.Andrew

  • Jim Hamilton

    David,Thanks for your kind words about my book! I hope that my comments here can clarify what I’m trying to say. Basically, I think that it’s faith alone that saves, but the faith that saves is never alone. So I see no more contradiction between what I’ve said about the Levitical sacrifices above and what James says about faith without works being dead. I would say that the OT sacrifice atones for sin the way Leviticus says it will (cf., e.g, Lev 1:4, passim). When Leviticus 1:4 says, “He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him,” works are not being added to faith, and Moses isn’t contradicting what Hebrews 10:4 says about the blood of bulls and goats not being able to take away sin. I take Moses to be saying that for those who believe what God inspired him to write, what God promised beginning from Gen 3:15, these sacrifices will make it possible for them to dwell in proximity to the holy God. So the ground of their faith is their belief in Genesis 3:15 and the promises that get added onto that, for instance, in Gen 12:1–3. The evidence that they believe will be seen in the way they act on what Moses tells them they must do, lest they die. I hope this helps! Thanks again for the interaction,Jim

  • Jim Hamilton

    Two more thoughts:Please note that in my discussion of Leviticus, I’m trying to get at what it meant for the people of God under the old covenant. In an excursus (page 111–14 in GGSTJ) I also try to get at what the statements in Leviticus mean now that Christ has come. I return to this in the discussion of Galatians (see esp. GGSTJ p. 474 n. 79). Also, you mention Saihamer’s work, and I thought you might be interested in my review of “The Meaning of the Pentateuch”: http://jimhamilton.info/2010/08/05/john-sailhamers-meaning-of-the-pentateuch-…Blessings,Jim

  • Doug Smith

    Dr. Hamilton, Would it be helpful or clarifying at all to comment on the OT idea of atonement? Does it always imply covering in the OT? In the NT, is it fulfilled in Christ, and to such a degree that He not only atoned for/covered our sin, but totally removed it as He took it upon Himself? If the answer to the last two questions is yes, then would it be biblically consistent to say that the OT sacrifices atoned for sin in a real, but very limited and temporary sense (real in that it really covered the sin, but limited in that it did not take it away, temporary in that it was never meant to be a permanent solution but only a provision until Christ offered Himself as the final and only sufficient sacrifice), and that their inability to actually remove sin is bound up with their nature as shadows and types of the once-for-all atonement to come? (Of course, the common denominator in all this being faith in the Promise of God to be realized in the Seed of the woman.)Drs. Murray & Hamilton, I am grateful for both of you and your ministries. You have brought much clarity to me in studying the Bible and especially in seeing how the great story of redemption is carried forward in its pages.

  • Jim Hamilton

    Thanks Doug, I basically agree with you. The only thing I would add is that the point of the sacrificial system in its old covenant context is to make it so that God, who is holy, can dwell among his people, who are sinful and regularly made unclean by contact with the dead. Blessings!JMH

  • David Murray

    Jim: Thanks so much for jumping in and offering these helpful clarifications. And thanks also for pointing me to your review of Sailhamer. I’ll definitely follow that up. I’ll probably come back to this subject next week. But I really, really appreciate the huge work you’ve invested in this book. Doug: Thanks for your thought-provoking comments. Again, I’d like to think further about what you say and come back next week on it.

  • David Bissett

    What a joy to see a comments section being so helpful. Thanks to all. Plan to read the book too (and wait for David Murray to write his own). db

  • MarkandKristi Olivero

    I went back to Leviticus reading several portions throughout. It seems to me that the key to understanding Leviticus is to understand Exodus (and Genesis too). God offers His Presence to His people before a sacrificial system is in place.I’m not sure my understanding of Redemptive theology can hook on to the idea that the sacrificial system was put in place so that God could dwell with His people. I’m still pondering that one. More explanation might be helpful.The question that keeps tapping on my shoulder as I read Leviticus is this: “What was the worshiper motivated by as he brought his animal to the Tab/Temple to be slain?” I want to get inside his head. What things might he have thought about as he brought his animal to be killed (a few have come to mind): “this is just a symbol cause something better is still to come” or “glad I made it – I’m covered for another year” or “I feel so awful about what I did last week – hope this sacrifice is enough to cover my guilt – maybe I’ll bring another one next week just as insurance” or “Atonement – that is what our Israelite worship is built on – so I’ll keep doing this to help keep our religion going.”any thots?

  • Jim Hamilton

    Further explanation can be found in GGSTJ. I think it more likely that the worshiper was thinking something along these lines: this animal costs a lot of money, and it has to be an unblemished one. This animal could yield a lot to me in terms of increased flock, or wool, or whatever, to say nothing of the feast we could have if we ate it. But Moses gave these instructions. Does my transgression (or uncleanness resulting from contact with the dead) require this? This God must be both morally pure and clean. I know that he spoke through Moses, and I know his word is authoritative (cf. Exod 24:6–7), so because I believe I'll offer this sacrifice. JMH

  • Bernard

    Hebrews 9:15 says, ‘For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance – now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.’ That means the cross functions retroactively, providing atonement for those under the previous covenant (who offered animal sacrifices). I suspect James Hamilton would agree with that because he’s unlikely to disagree with Hebrews 10:4: ‘It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.’ So perhaps what’s happening here is that he’s writing somewhat loosely, missing out a step or two. What he really means is ‘…for people to substitute animals of sacrifice that will be judged in their place, that they might be saved [as a result of the retroactive work of Jesus' death, applied to those who expressed their need for atonement by making use of the sacrificial system].’

  • Bernard

    Ah, I now see lots of comments have been added between my logging on to the page and my submitting of my comment – including some from James Hamilton himself!

  • Bernard

    OK having now read the comments above I feel I can stand by my comment. I think the key word in this discussion is ‘saved’ (p. 114 in Dr Hamilton’s book). The blood of animals can’t do that. But participating in the OT sacrificial system does indicate faith (as Dr Hamilton says in his helpful comment above), which does save, through Jesus’ blood. Looking at Lev. 1:4-5 it seems clear the blood of animal sacrifices is achieving *something* – not just as evidence of faith, the blood itself seems to be achieving something. Can we say that the blood of the OT sacrificial system achieves ceremonial atonement, while the blood of Jesus achieves salvific atonement (for both OT and NT believers)? Just a rhetorical question, no need for anyone to answer. I think that’s basically a different way of putting what Doug Smith says above.

  • Andrew Suttles

    Isn’t there a sense in which the levitical system ‘saved’ the national of Israel, as a whole. I guess ‘saved’ is not the right word, but preserved is probably better. I mean, leaving personal salvation aside, isn’t there a sense in which the Old Covenant is a works covenant made with the nation as a whole (‘do this’ and you, as in you all, will have long life and prosper ‘in the land’)? It seems that we often confuse the national with the personal when we read of the works aspect of the Old Covenant.

  • David Murray