For good or bad, the terms "saved" and "salvation" have evolved over the years to encompass all aspects of a believer's relationship with the Lord. Everything from one's deliverance from sin to his ultimate glorification in heaven is today described under the umbrella of "salvation," but strictly speaking, salvation only speaks of one aspect of what the Lord offers believers in Jesus Christ.
In the Scriptures "save(d)" and "salvation" primarily speak of delivering someone or some thing from any negative consequence. It can refer to saving lives (Gen 47:25; Exo 1:17; etc.), being delivered from enemies (2Sa 22:4; 1Ch 11:14; Psa 18:3; etc.), or the nation of Israel being ultimately delivered from sin (Jer 33:16, Rom 9:27; etc.). Even most instances of the terms in the NT speak of a future deliverance from God's wrath and judgment (Rom 5:9, 13:11; etc.). Furthermore, the Bible states one can save himself (Act 2:40), a wife her husband and vice versa (1Co 7:16), or another from danger. So scripturally the term "saved" simply means to be delivered FROM some bad thing (Luke 1:71; Rom 5:9; etc.) or saved OUT of something (2Sa 19:9; Jer 30:7).
A person is not saved TO anything in the Bible. The term salvation itself does not speak of one being reconciled TO the Lord (Dan 9:24; Rom 5:10; 2Co 5:19) or of his sins be cleared (Exo 34:7), propitiated (1Jo 2:2, 4:10), or redeemed (Gal 4:5; Col 1:14), etc. Concerning the benefits of believing on Christ it speaks of being delivered from God's wrath or hell just like the word "deliver" can mean (1Th 1:10; Col 1:13; Gal 1:4). In short, salvation speaks of deliverance from the negative; not appropriation of the positive.
Understanding the above will help clear up some misunderstandings. For instance, when the Bible says, "...and the prayer of faith shall save the sick," "...she shall be saved in childbearing," or similar ambiguous phrases, understanding the word "save" as being delivered from something bad or wrong helps clear up any misunderstanding. "Being delivered from something bad" is the way most instances of "save*" should be understood, and if the reader will keep that in mind while he reads the scriptures, certain passages that may have been difficult before will loose their ambiguity.
In spite of the above facts, some today still contend the term "salvation" must apply to the whole scope of blessings and benefits God gives to believers in Christ. They do this so they can claim Old Testament saints such as Abraham, Moses, David, etc. were not saved in any way until after Christ's redemption. Some will even mince words by saying OT saints were "safe" but not "saved." This only leads to confusion because the Lord was saving "righteous" and "upright in heart" people all the time in the OT (Psa 5:12, 7:10, 11:7, 31:1; 112:2; 125:4, Job 8:6, Prov 11:20; 28:18). Along with that He was forgiving people and remitting their sins "right and left" whenever they called on Him (Exo 34:7; Num 14:18; Psa 32:5, 86:5; Isa 55:7; Dan 9:9, Micah 7:18; etc.)! A burning hell (Deut 32:22) is for wicked, (unrighteous, unforgiven, and unsaved) people (Psa 9:17, 55:15; Mat 23:23; 2Pe 2:4). Not for those who have been forgiven and saved, in either testament.
"Forgiveness" is another misapplied word used today. By itself it won't get one to heaven either, but it did get OT saints "saved" from hell's torment. Like salvation, forgiveness doesn't actually deal with one's sins. It is more an attitude the one harmed has towards his perpetrator. In His great mercy the Lord forgave people and saved them from the consequences of their sin, but still the sin remained and had to be eventually dealt with.
God had been forgiving/pardoning people and remitting their sins on the basis of the shed blood of animals since the beginning (Exo 32:32; Lev 4:26, 5:10; 1Sam 15:25; Psa 32:1, 85:2, 85:5, 130:4; Luke 3:3; Matt 26:28; Heb 9:22; etc.), but this forgiveness did not "clear" or redeem anyone from their "guilt" (Exo 34:7; Num 14:18-19; Heb 10:4). By their forgiveness they were saved (delivered; rescued) from the consequences of their sins (Hell's torment) but they were still considered "guilty" because the blood of bulls and goats could not permanently deal with any sin (Heb 9:22). The sinless Christ had to come and as a "propitiation" assume the guilt to satisfy God's anger against all sin and guilt (Rom 3:25; 1Jo 2:2, 4:10). Also, His redemption declared God as "righteous" for forgiving (saving) all the OT saints in the first place (Rom 3:25) even when no eternal redemption was yet available.
The distinction between what happens to a believer today compared to Old Testament times is seen with the account of the Rich Man and Lazuras in Luke 16. As sinners Abraham and Lazuras both deserved the torments of hell, but they dwelled in relative peace compared to the Rich Man. Why? Because the Lord had forgiven and then delivered them from that torment since they were obedient to His will.
According to Luke 16, when an OT saint died there was an implied judgment made of their standing before God. Remember, it was the angels who took Lazarus to Abraham's bosom, and obviously angels do the bidding of the Lord (Heb 1:7). Because of his sin the natural direction of man at death is to a burning hell (like the rich man), however, the Lord (implied, but who else?) made a judgment of Lazarus and directed the angels to intercept and carry him to the other side where Abraham already was. So everyone in paradise had to have been judged by God as worthy to get there and await eternal redemption. They met whatever threshold the Lord had established for them to be accepted. In the OT, at least for Israel, there was a certain level of obedience required, but as we saw above, the Lord was/is ready and eager to forgive anyone who is willing to turn their hearts and call on Him.
Concerning the standing of those with Abraham in paradise, we have established they were forgiven/pardoned with their sins remitted and thus saved from torment, but were they...
Was there anything in them, on them, or applied to them to "take
away" their sin and guilt and make them fit for God's presence (John
1:29)? Again, No. The distinction was so stark that no
individual in the OT would even dare to call God his "father."
None of these blessings which actually deal with sin and its guilt were yet available to the OT saints because they are only found in the resurrected Christ. That is why Abraham and the rest of the saints even though forgiven, pardoned, and saved could not "come boldly unto the throne of grace" (Heb 4:16) into the presence of the Lord until their redemption was obtained. Once "the Word became flesh," lived a righteous life, and suffered a sacrificial death for all the world's sins, He went to the "lower parts of the earth" (Eph 4:9) and led those who were captive in paradise out with Him into heaven when "he ascended up on high" (Eph 4:8), signifying their redemption was complete.
Some believers claim when Christ "preached unto the spirits in prison" in 1Peter 3:19 He was preaching to the OT saints in paradise, but the next verse makes it clear these were "spirits" or angels who disobeyed "in the days of Noah." He likely preached or proclaimed judgment (see 2Pe 2:4).
1Peter 4:6 is another place some appeal to to claim Christ preached to the OT saints, but that understanding is by no means certain or even likely. The "dead" in the verse could refer to believers like Abraham who had a gospel preached to him while he was alive (Gal 3:8), or long dead Israelites who heard some gospel "good tidings" while alive under the law (Heb 4:2), but the 1 Peter 4:1-6 context is speaking of believers living under persecution, so the dead are likely believers those Peter was speaking to knew who were "judged according to men" and died under it.
In stark contrast to the Old Testament economy, believers today receive nearly everything the Lord provides at once (really all but the redemption or glorification of the body). When the person receives Christ (John 1:12-13) he receives all of these blessings with Him, from adoption to redemption, because they are IN Him! Everything God requires a person to be (righteous, holy, sinless, perfect, etc.) He supplies in the Lord Jesus Christ, and it is the believer's union with Christ that makes these virtues his own (Eph 1:3; Rom 8:39; etc.). OT saints had a declared forgiveness and even a declared righteousness (Rom 4:3) which led to salvation from the consequences of their sin, but they did not have the Lord Jesus Christ and all the benefits of the "eternal redemption" He provides (Heb 9:12).
Although the term "salvation" has become the encompassing word for all God has for a believer in Jesus Christ, no where in the Bible does it say a minister is to minister "salvation." Actually "reconciliation" is what believers are charged to minister (2Co 5:18-19) as part of ministering the gospel of God (Rom 15:16). As we mentioned, "salvation" only speaks of what one is delivered FROM, but "reconciliation" identifies what (or who) the believer is now joined TO! God wants people to know they can now come TO Him! Reconciliation (resulting from redemption, justification, propitiation, etc.) will put us in a "bosom" much better than Abraham's. It will put us in Jesus Christ himself (Eph 2:13, etc.)!
Sadly, reconciliation and the other doctrines that define what happens to a believer in Christ are seldom mentioned today (like redemption, justification, propitiation, sanctification, regeneration, imputation, adoption, and glorification). When believers are only told they are "saved" or "forgiven," from their sins they miss out on the rich blessings that understanding these blood bought doctrines bring. (See our work More Than Forgiven for a study of them.)
Anyway, we hope the reader understands a little better how OT saints could be saved but still not go to heaven, and also how today's usage of the term "salvation" has grown to mean more than originally intended.