One of the difficult questions to answer is the status and experience of OT believers. This post does not pretend to answer this question but I hope it points to fruitful fields of inquiry.
Old Testament believers were justified by faith (Roms 4: Gen 15:6). Abraham’s faith=justification serves as the template for all future justification (Roms 4). I would argue OT believers were not only justified ( a word associated with spiritual status before God) by faith but they also lived by faith (Hebs 11). They were regenerate (a word associated with spiritual life). Thus far, I think most would agree. It os describing what this spiritual life looked like that is difficult.
From Sinai until Pentecost, believers lived under the mosaic covenant of law. It seems that OC believers, people like Moses, Joshua, David, Isaiah, Elizabeth and Zachariah, Anna, Simeon, John the Baptist and others experienced to some degree the existential conflict and defeat we find in Roms 7; their hearts delighted in God’s law while their flesh rebelled against it and the agony of failure engulfed. Some psalms, like 19 and 119, describe the law positively, like Paul in Romans 7, they delight in the law while perhaps the penitential psalms illustrate its killing power with hope for deliverance found in God. In Romans 7 Paul essentially describes the experience of someone living under law. He views it as a form of slavery from which freedom comes through the gospel and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Roms 8:1-4).
This distinction between OT and NT believers suggests that regeneration has different realities for believers before redemption is accomplished and believers after it is accomplished. OT believers were regenerate but this was something different from being ‘in Christ.’ The NT uses the word ‘regeneration’ as a synonym for being ‘born again’ and ‘alive’ (Jn 3, Eph 2:5, Tit 3:5). The image of new birth has its roots in the OT (Jn 3:10) where it normally has an eschatological focus (Ezek 11:14-21; 36:22-33, 37; Jer 33:39-44). Eternal life is spoken of in the OT but tends to be associated with the messianic age (Ps 133; Dan 12:1-4). It seems that new birth and regeneration, whatever their OT reality belong more fully to the gospel age. OT believers in the time of promise were born again for unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). However, life in its abundance belongs to the age of the kingdom that arrived in Christ.
The normal OT expression for the renewal of OT saints is ‘circumcised hearts’ (CF. Deut 10:4, 30; Jer 4:4, 8:24; 1 Sam 10:9; Col 2: 11-14). It seems clear that circumcised hearts are equivalent to regenerate hearts. References to circumcised hearts are sometimes eschatological (Deut 30; Roms 2:28,29) but there is a call in the OT for hearts to be circumcised immediately.. In the NT,, the disciples are described as ‘clean’ (Jn 13:10). Circumcised hearts and clean both seem to refer to regeneration. It seems clear then that OT saints (including NT saints before Pentecost) were regenerate but not with the profound implications that post-Pentecost saints enjoy; remember, OT saints looked forward to the kingdom while NT believers inhabit it. Perhaps an analogy from natural life may be useful. In our world, all births do not carry the same potential; both genes and circumstances may affect the potential for life. Some are born with significantly less gifts than others hampering life’s potential. In addition, where and when we are born profoundly influences our life potential. No doubt many people in North Korea see life in the West as a quality of life they can only imagine. People in past centuries would look with wonder on life today. Life involves different capacities .
So OT believers were born again but there were limiting factors that made life less than the life of the kingdom. Different levels of life is not a strange idea. Believers in Christ today are born again, have eternal life and belong to the kingdom but we do not enjoy any completely. Only in the consummated kingdom will these be fully realised. There is an already not yet element to all our present blessings; we have but a foretaste of what is to come. It should not surprise us that OT saints enjoyed in a rudimentary sense the blessings we know in the time of fulfilment since we even in the present aspect of the kingdom await a much fuller life to come.
Fundamentally, the quality of eternal life is influenced by the granted experience of God. Eternal life, John says, is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent. It is fellowship with the Father and Son something not possible before the coming of `Christ and the Spirit. At least three related elements feed into this fellowship with divine persons: divine revelation; the Holy Spirit; and redemptive history.
Perhaps, as a general rule of thumb we may say that divine blessings ratchet up with new epochs or dispensations (all believe in dispensations but not necessarily in dispensationalism).
The story of redemption is one of God progressively revealing himself and his plans to his people. The more God reveals of himself the greater the quality of spiritual life enjoyed. Understanding increases spiritual maturity. Divine revelation reaches a climax with the coming of Christ – he is the divine word incarnate, God as a man. The book of Hebrews is all about the superiority of Christianity over Judaism and the reason is made plain from the outset; although God had revealed himself truly in the OT this had been inferior to his revelation in his Son. The Son was ‘the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature’. Here is full and exhaustive revelation. It is little wonder that the NT is more excellent than the OT. God’s glory blazes fully in Christ. Jesus said that to see him was to see the Father.
Hebrews conveys the superiority that comes in Christ the ultimate revelation. He compares what has come in Christ to law. For example, the sacrifice of Christ takes salvation to a new level. There were many sacrifices in the OT but they were unable to really deal with sin. They could not clear the conscience. How could a dumb animal sacrifice atone for human sin? It couldn’t. In fact the repetition of these sacrifices was a constant reminder of sin. Consciences could not be cleared giving access to God’s immediate presence. OT sacrifices provided a kind of temporary covering. OT believers did not enjoy the same deep sense of cleansing and forgiveness that those in Christ enjoy. Only a clean voluntary human sacrifice could be a propitiation for human sin; a human sacrifice must be provided.
Further, the priests who interceded for the people and offered sacrifices on their behalf were all too human and weak just like those they served (Hebs 5, 7:23-28). Moreover, the priests died and so were constantly changing. As a result there was not pastoral continuity. In any case, the priests were were often too distracted by their own problems to concentrate fully on others. They did not know, as we do, the reigning High Priest in heaven, separated from life’s distractions eternally alive interceding for them.
Thus we see the limitations of life under law and why ‘something better’ was required.
The Holy Spirit
I live in Scotland beside the Clyde. The Clyde is a river that like many rivers starts as a stream in the hills. The Clyde starts in the lead hills and winds its way to the sea gradually increasing in size and depth until it becomes a river that eventually becomes an enormous estuary with islands and sea lochs before it becomes part of the sea. Sailors spend many weeks exploring the estuaries delight.
The work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God people in history is like this. If divine revelation gradually increases so too does the activity of the Spirit in the lives of God’s people. In salvation history the Holy Spirit is made increasingly available to God’s people bringing greater depth and spiritual experience until finally in the consummated kingdom everything is infused with his presence and God is all and in all.
The image of the Spirit as a river is common in Scripture. Rivers and fountains are moving (living) waters. Their movement suggests life and vitality and a great blessing in the arid Near East (Ezek 47; Ps 46; Jn 7:38).
When we read the Bible we see that as water is vital to natural life so the Holy Spirit is critical to spiritual life and activity; the word ‘spiritual’ gives the game away. His activity is of course pervasive in the NT for with the arrival of Christ and his kingdom the age of the Spirit dawned (Acts 2, Jn 16:7; Lk 3:16). The gospel age belongs to the realised kingdom which the OT predicted to be the age of the Spirit (Joel 2:28,29; Isa 32:15; Ezek 36,37).
It seems to me there are two dangers to be avoided. The first is to say OT believers knew nothing of the Spirit and the second is to believe they lived as new covenant believers. The truth seems to lie somewhere between. Both OT and NT believers experience the Spirit but to different degrees. If you like, NT believers live in the estuary while OT believers belong to the streams and river.
That OT Israel was capable of resisting the Holy Spirit shows he was active among them (Acts 17:51). We have seen that OT believers were regenerate – circumcision is the OT word for the new birth. It is the Holy Spirit who brings about the new birth and without it no-one can see the kingdom of God (Jn 3; Col 2:11). However, we observed that life is limited by capacity and circumstances. It would seem that the activity of the Spirit in believers and the world is more limited in the OT. We read of some being anointed by the Spirit for specific tasks. However, this anointing is often temporary depending on the task.
Jesus makes a comment to his disciples that may well have a bearing on our inquiry. He says to his disciples the Holy Spirit has been with them and will be in them. Some think Jesus is not distinguishing between salvation eras here. They think he is merely saying that in him the Spirit has been with them and shortly shall be in them. This may or may not be the case but even if it is true it does not change the substantial point for ‘shall be in you’ is future; clearly at that point the Spirit did not indwell the disciples(Jn 7:39; 16:7). The indwelling Spirit is specifically a gift from Christ to the eschatological church, the messianic community. Elsewhere he says the Spirit was not yet given (Jn 7:39). A dispensational (small ‘d’ ) distinction seems evident. And this would square with what we read in the OT.
Where the Spirit of God is, there is God; where God is there is the Spirit. In the OT, under law, God dwelt in a temple among his people. He did not dwell in them, he dwelt among them. This seems to model the relationship of the Spirit to believers in the epoch of law (Hag 2:5; Isa 63:11). He was with them but not in them in the sense of a permanently indwelling presence. In the NT God’s temple is the church and by extension believers bodies. There is an epochal distinction at work. The Spirit no longer comes upon a few believers but all, he no longer is with them temporarily but in them permanently and importantly he no longer is simply with them but dwells in them. God is no longer mediated through priests, in the new covenant, all are priests. Once again we see the advance between promise and fulfilment. Incidentally the presence of God in his temple among his people was an advance on the patriarchs who had no temple; the stream (the patriarchs) became a river (the law).
In Roms 7, Paul does not mention the presence of the Holy Spirit in old covenant believers. In fact, for him, the Holy Spirit is the marked distinction between the OC and the NC (Roms 7,8). This may be because the Spirit is not a formal promise of the OC.; the word of law was the covenant guide not the indwelling Spirit. However, there is no work of God that happens independently of the Spirit of God. The OT speaks of the Spirit anointing individuals for specific tasks (construction, kingship, prophecy, soldiering, judging and composing etc). His presence may be more than an external influence though the preposition ‘in’ can mean ‘on’ (Num 27:18). His presence may be temporary or more permanent. However, whatever hiss activity, he does not unite them to a risen Christ, he does not form them into one body and he is not to them a kingdom foretaste of the full harvest. I have not done sufficient research to gain greater understanding but once again I simply note some kind of progression from ‘with you’ to ‘in you’.
The external structures of the community of faith seems to reveal its dynamics.
Spiritual life for both OT and NT saints is not yet complete. OT saints lived and functioned with the shadow of the final glory. In the old covenant they had an earthly land (Canaan), an earthly city (Jerusalem), an earthly temple, sacrifices with only earthly efficacy, and earthly priests. All of these framed and prefigured ultimate realities but they were only shadows of things to come. Nevertheless, those of faith saw in and through these earthly structures a glorious eschatological reality. The prophets (including the Psalms describe a future where these things are idealised. By living with their eyes to the future the lived by faith just as we do.
In the NT, as we have seen things considerably advance; the promise gives way to fulfilment, albeit partial fulfilment. In Christ, and through the Spirt, we begin to experience in a substantial way the kingdom glories the OT foreshadowed. Christ brings his people into weighty redemptive blessings that OT prophets foresaw while not really understanding what they saw. We are, in union with Messiah, no longer children but sons of God and co-heirs with Messiah (Gals 3,4). We are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem (Phil 3:20) and seated in heavenly realms with Christ. We know Christ and enjoy fellowship with the Godhead (Jn 13-17). We are blessed with all the spiritual blessings that belong to the heavenly promised land. We are the Temple-City that is yet to come. By the Spirit we experience a foretaste of coming glory. Yet, now we see through a glass darkly. We await the redemption of our bodies (Roms 8:23). It is not yet clear what we shall be but we shall be like him. Now is our salvation nearer than when we first believed (Roms 13:11). In the later NT letters we see how salvation in its various aspects is still to come. Everything we have we have in part and await the full realisation.
So both OT and NT believers live by faith looking to the future. The writer to the Hebrews says.
And all these [OT saints], though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us [NT saints], that apart from us they should not be made perfect.
And so we see the trajectory through promise to fulfilment. It is probably not possible to define exactly OT experience. Roms 7 reveals the formal experience of those under law whether regenerate or unregenerate but does not comment on the activity of the Spirit. We have seen law was a kind of captivity. Our understanding of OT experience must be shaped by this and be thankful that we live in gospel liberty.