Was There Forgiveness Under the Law of Moses?

Why was forgiveness promised to the Israelites when the New Testament says their sacrifices could not provide forgiveness for sins?
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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“How could there be forgiveness of sins before Christ died (for example, in the Old Testament period), if forgiveness was predicated upon Jesus’ death?”

Let us think about two different ways to answer this challenging question.

Answer #1: Forgiveness Was Available Before the Death of Christ

Do the scriptures assert that, in some sense, forgiveness was obtainable before the death of Christ?

There should be no dispute that the answer to this question is yes. Consider the following.

Forgiveness in the Patriarchal Age

Although the concept of forgiveness is not predominate in the Patriarchal age (the period of time between Adam and Moses), it certainly is implied in the sacrifices of blood that were frequently offered in that initial era of human history (cf. Gen. 8:20; 12:7-8, etc.).

Abel, by his more excellent sacrifice, had “had witness borne to him that he was righteous” (Heb. 11:4). Certainly, this was not his own righteousness, but a righteousness that was imputed through his obedient faith.

Job offered burnt offerings for his children in the event that they had sinned (Job 1:5).

If forgiveness was needed even in the disputes among men (Gen. 50:17), surely this implies that pardon is indispensable if one was to stand before the holy God (cf. Hab. 1:13).

Forgiveness Under Moses

The concept of forgiveness comes into full vision under the Mosaic regime.

For instance, in the early portion of Leviticus in connection with various sacrifices, Moses records that these offerings were a “sweet savor” to the Lord (see Lev. 1:9; 2:2; 3:5, 16).

In Leviticus 4:31, the nature of that “sweet savor” is defined:

“the priest shall burn [the sacrifice] upon the altar for a sweet savor unto Jehovah; and the priest shall make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven” (emphasis added)

Other Old Testament texts, pledging forgiveness, are far too numerous to need recitation at this time.

Forgiveness Under John’s Baptism

Forgiveness was obtainable under the administration of John the Immerser. Mark records:

“John came, who baptized in the wilderness and preached the baptism of repentance unto the remission of sins” (Mk. 1:4).

Those who rejected John’s baptism, at the same time “rejected the counsel of God” (Lk. 7:30). One may draw his own conclusion about the forgiveness status of those who spurned the proclamation of Jehovah’s messenger (cf. Is. 40:3; Mal. 3:1).

Forgiveness During the Ministry of Christ

Jesus Christ, during his personal ministry, also forgave sins. In the city of Capernaum, when a lame man was brought into the house where he was, the Lord said unto him, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Then, in order to demonstrate to the doubting and chagrined scribes that he had the authority to forgive the man’s sins, he said to the crippled gentleman, “Arise, and take up your bed, and go to your house” (Mk. 2:5-11).

Clearly, forgiveness, at least in some sense, was bestowed before the death of Christ. That being the case then, how does one explain texts such as these that follow.

Answer #2: Old Testament Saints Were Redeemed By the Death of Christ

Although the Bible clearly teaches that forgiveness was available to those living in prior dispensations, it also instructs us that they needed redemption.

Note Paul’s explanation:

“[B]ut when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:4-5; emphasis added).

If the redemption of those who lived under the law of Moses had been achieved before the Savior’s death in the fullest sense of the term, why was the death of Jesus even necessary?

As Paul argued in the same epistle:

“[I]f righteousness [i.e., being right with God — forgiven] is [accomplished] through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21).

In other words, the forgiveness offered to those under the law still needed a redemption price to be paid.

“And for this cause he is the mediator of a new covenant, that a death having taken place for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they that have been called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must of necessity be the death of him that made it. For a testament is of force where there has been death: for it never avails while he who made it lives” (Heb. 9:15-17).

Of special significance in the passage above is the phrase, “for the redemption of the transgressions.” In the original text, the term rendered by the English word “for,” is the Greek preposition eis. The word denotes a goal as yet not reached.

Prior to the death of Jesus, there was no redemption (in some sense) under the Mosaic system.

The Problem

Here, then, is our problem. One set of texts indicates there was forgiveness before the death of Christ, while another set suggests there was no pardon until after the Lord’s death.

Is there a contradiction? Which answer represents the truth?

In logic there exists a principle known as the “law of contradiction.” Basically, it says this:

A thing cannot both be, and not be, for the same person, place, or thing, at the same time, or in the same sense.

It is this last phrase that presently engages our attention. In the problem at hand, it is possible for there to be both “forgiveness” and “non-forgiveness” — provided the “senses” are different.

In what way, then, are the senses different?

No forgiveness without Christ

There could have been no forgiveness available for fallen humanity without the historical incarnation and ultimate death of the Son of God.

Without the shedding of blood, there would have been no pardon for sin (Heb. 9:22). But the blood of animals could not provide actual atonement for sin (Heb. 10:4).

Those animal sacrifices under the former dispensations were typical (pictorial representations) of the “lamb of God” who was to come and provide a sacrificial offering for humanity (Jn. 1:29).

Had Jesus not died at Calvary, those offerings of ages gone by would have been worthless.

God’s Certainty

On the other hand, God knew that the death of his Son was certain ultimately, and on that basis, and that of his own fidelity to keep his promise of redemption, he could — and did — grant forgiveness to the faithful of those previous ages.


Practically speaking Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the saints of those earlier eras enjoyed the blessing of pardon for sin.

Ultimately, though, forgiveness was achieved at the cross.

Two different senses are under consideration:

  • forgiveness contingently received based on the future death of Jesus, and
  • forgiveness completely accomplished at the cross

F. F. Bruce, in slightly different language, describes the matter as follows:

“The first covenant provided a measure of atonement and remission for sins committed under it, but it was incapable of providing ‘eternal redemption’; this was a blessing which had to await the inauguration of the new covenant, which embodies God’s promise to his people, ‘I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jer. 31:34)” (1990, 230).

When the theme is viewed from complementary vantage points, there is no difficulty in resolving the supposed conflict.

  • Bruce, F. F. 1990. The Epistle to the Hebrews — Revised Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.