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I thought of this when I was researching this question.

Leviticus 4 goes into great detail about the sacrifice that must be made in order for a sin to be forgiven. However, we see here that God actually provided a way for these sins to be forgiven.

Specifically, Leviticus 16 shows that this sacrifice and the Day of Atonement did provide forgiveness of sins:

Leviticus 16:30 (NIV)Emphasis added
because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins.

Now, Jews no longer provide sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins, however God has still provided a way for these sins to be forgiven. (See Why don't Jews sacrifice animals anymore? for more information.)

So, if God has previously given us a way to have forgiveness of our sins, why did he send Jesus to be our ultimate sacrifice?

I believe that there is some doctrinal basis for this. I'm not sure which specific doctrine would best be applied to this, but I am seeking a mainstream Protestant doctrine on the matter.

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I want to re-emphasize that this is not a straw man. I believe there was forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament and Leviticus shows this! –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 16:33

6 Answers 6

The answer is clearly found in Deuteronomy 30 which is referenced by Paul in Romans 10. And how was Abraham declared righteous? Romans said we are justified the same way Abraham was and that the gospel was preached to Abraham before hand. I encourage you to seek this out and you will see the gospel and the blood of Christ from Genesis to Revelation.

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Can you please add much more specific references? –  curiousdannii Jul 27 at 3:51
This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. On this site, we're not looking for personal interpretation, but rather focusing on what various Christian groups teach. See How we are different than other sites? and What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Jul 27 at 4:26

The old testament sacrifices were valuable only because God Himself would become, at some time in the future, the Sacrifice Himself. Gen. 3:15. So until He became a Man and died on the cross, a system of sacrifices were given to Abel-Gen.4:4;to Noah-Gen.8:20,21; to Job-Job 1:5;42:8;to Abraham-Gen.15:9,10 and to the nation of Israel-Ex. 12:3;Lev.3;4;5;16, etc.,etc.Therefore the concept, since Adam's fall, that man could no longer approach God without the shedding of blood of an innocent victim, was cemented in their minds. They were righteous but were not innocent as Adam was BEFORE he fell. God could no longer be approached without the death of a victim-covenant. You need to accept the fact that Jesus is the fulfilment of Hebrew prophecies as in Psalm 16;10;22;Isaiah 9:6,7;53; Daniel 9:24-27. In Psalm 22,verses 14-17, David is describing the agonies of execution by being nailed to something. He wrote this about 900 years before the death of Christ, even before crucifixion was invented. And in Isaiah 53:9, it is stated that someone will die with the wicked and be buried with the rich. Jesus Christ was surrounded by thieves at the cross and afterwards was buried in the brand new tomb of a rich man, Joseph of Arimathea, Matt. 27:57-60. Daniel 9:24-27 predicts the coming of someone Who would bring everlasting righteousness, reconciliation for iniquity with exact precision of time-483 years from the order to reconstruct Jerusalem by the Persian king Artaxerxes until the birth of Christ. His rejection would bring the complete destruction of Jerusalem again. All these events have been fulfilled by the Person of Jesus Christ. These prophecies should make you think. May the Lord help you to reason from the Scriptures the truth that you desperately need in order to be saved and avoid the lake of fire

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To try and answer your question with brevity instead of wordiness, I will just say that the OT sacrifices were sufficient for a time seeing as they were instituted by God. However, they were to forshadow the day when instead of us making sacrifices, God would provide the unlimited and infinite sacrifice, Himself.

As long as there was finite sacrifices, only finite forgiveness was achieved. But once there was an infinite sacrifice, then, infinite forgiveness was achieved.

For instance, when there was the sacrifice of small animals, there was small forgiveness. But when an infinite being, the incarnate creator God of the cosmos is sacrificed so much more is acheived.

Here is Colossians 1:19-20

  • 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Thus, through Christ, God reconciled to Himself "ALL THINGS," which interestingly enough includes things in heaven that apparently needed reconciliation. The self-sacrifice of an infinitely good, holy, and loving God can acheive far more than we could ever imagine!

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Caleb is pretty close to the answer.

Remember that the greatest of all commandments is to love God "with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind" (Matthew 22:37) that Jesus said, "If ye love me, keep my commandments," (John 14:15) and that at the final judgment, everyone is judged according to their works. (Revelation 20:12)

As Hebrews 10:4 points out, the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament had no intrinsic value for redemption or remission of sins; all forgiveness comes through the Atonement of Christ and in no other way. But the sacrifices provided two important things: they served as a way to point people's minds forward to Christ, which helped them to have faith, and they were a commandment of God to obey, giving them an opportunity to show their devotion. (And remember that these sacrifices were sacrifices; to a nation of shepherds, giving up the best of their flocks did indeed require an act of faith!)

Simply because the blood sacrifices did not provide forgiveness of sins in and of themselves did not make them worthless. It was the people's faith and their acts of obedience that allowed them to have claim on the cleansing power of the Atonement, the same as in modern times. That's the missing link here. This is why various Old Testament prophets (Isaiah and Samuel come to mind immediately, and I know there were a few others) talked about how the sacrifices themselves were worthless and abhorrent to the Lord when the people were disobedient, unrighteous, and unfaithful. This was not a new concept that Paul came up with.

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So, you're saying that the combination of faith and sacrifice provided for forgiveness of sins? I completely agree with this! It reconciles Leviticus with Isaiah. However, since God provided the mechanism (faith, obedience, and sacrifice), why did we need the sacrifice of Jesus? (I disagree on a minor point: that their faith in the Messiah was the faith that God was after. I believe God was after faith in God himself, not faith in future salvation. This can be seen from the Leviticus verse.) –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 17:33
@Richard: Yes, if you only look at that verse in isolation, but remember that Moses gave them the promise of the Messiah elsewhere, and that we have several indications throughout the Old Testament that they understood the promise of a Redeemer, and that that promise was bound up with sacrifices, the forgiveness of sins, and the Resurrection. And we need the sacrifice of Jesus because the Atonement is what provides the actual cleansing power. Our faith and obedience are what allow us to apply the Atonement's cleaning power to ourselves. But without the Atonement, there could be no forgiveness. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 6 '11 at 17:41
@Richard: To give a (highly oversimplified) analogy, consider an electric light. You need to have a valid lightbulb installed and do the work to flip the switch to turn it on, but even if you do all that, if there is no power connected to your house, you won't get any light. It was Christ's sacrifice that provides the power for the forgiveness of sins, and the people's faith, obedience and sacrifice that made them able to use it. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 6 '11 at 17:55
I want so badly to believe this. Could you provide some scriptural examples of how Moses gave the promise of the Messiah and how that promise was bound up with sacrifices? I simply haven't seen any evidence of that, but would love to have solid proof of it. –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 17:57
@Richard: I can do that, but not right now. It would require more time for research and looking up references than I have time for right now at work. If anyone else can provide references, they'd be welcomed. –  Mason Wheeler Oct 6 '11 at 18:24

One indicator that the Levitical sacrifices were insufficient is that they had to be offered each year for the nation and more often for individuals, depending really on the frequency of offenses. In essence, they were only effective for past offenses. The next time a sin was committed, the person and nation were susceptible to judgment if a sacrifice was not offered at the appropriate time.

Furthermore, there was nothing in the sacrificial system for some sins, including adultery and murder.

The Levitical Law only existed from the time of Moses as well, while Abraham lived 400-500 years before that. "Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness." Salvation has always been through faith in God's provision rather than through our own works.

Adam and Eve's attempts to cover their own shame with the fig leaves in the garden were insufficient. They needed the clothing that God provided (and the promise of a Deliverer who would crush the work of Satan that brought death to the world).

In Isaiah, God actually tells the nation of Israel to "stop bringing meaningless sacrifices". The issue was that they were "honoring God with their mouths while their hearts were far from Him." Dutifully carrying out rituals was never a means of salvation.

Judaism may believe that God no longer requires animal sacrifices and that there is forgiveness apart from those and apart from Jesus, but the Bible is very clear that this is not the case. The sacrifices were an act of faith in God, and the sacrifice of Jesus is the only thing that has ever provided atonement for sins, "For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins." (Hebrews 10:14)

There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12) Christianity is very clear that Judaism without Christ cannot provide forgiveness of sins. In fact, nothing else can provide forgiveness of sins.

Romans 3 states the following:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. 25 God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— 26 he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Note that it says, "He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished". God's justice requires that all sins be punished. No sin was punished until Jesus died and endured the righteous punishment of God for sins.

So, neither Levitical Law nor good deeds nor being religious can achieve forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness comes by faith in Christ and in His work of atonement.

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You seem to have shown proof that the Levitical laws were not sufficient (which I appreciate). However, it doesn't answer the problem about how sins were forgiven in Leviticus 16:30. Admittedly, when they were done in vain they were useless (per Isaiah and Hebrews that you site). However, they were effective for a time. –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 16:51
I think that this answer might help me formulate my own theory, though. Thank you for a longer answer to this issue. –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 16:51
@Richard Included in the list you cited are thieves, slanderers and drunkads. 1 Corinthians 6:11 (the verse after the ones you mentioned) say "And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." So, when sin is unaccounted for/unforgiven, judgment is due. Yet, when sin is, in fact, forgiven, judgment has already been made and the punishment has already been paid. –  Narnian Oct 6 '11 at 18:29
Nice catch! And fair enough. I removed that comment. I know that line of logic is kind of chasing our tails, anyways. –  Richard Oct 6 '11 at 18:32

Actually, it never worked.

Hebrews 10:4 (ESV)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

All the OT sacrifices were useless in an of themselves. What they did all along was not actually solve something but point people to the idea that something needed to be solved and the way that had to happen was through sacrifice. All the OT sacrificial rules only served to point us to Christ, who was already arranged as the Lamb to come.

In other words, the forgiveness for sins that God "provided" in the Old Testament was through Jesus from day one, so you can't just take him out of the picture. There isn't another way.

See also: Who saved people before ~33AD?

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Leviticus 16:30 makes it sound like it did (and that atonement was made on that very day, not at some point in the future). However, the rest of the Hebrews passage (10:1-18) does somewhat answer my question. Those sacrifices took away sin, but in Jesus we are made perfect. –  Richard Sep 21 '11 at 14:13
Yeah it's the difference between washing a dirty pair of jeans and making a new pair. –  Andrew Oct 6 '11 at 16:24
@Richard I guess I need to re-word this. I think there was forgiveness granted through the OT sacrifices too, but not through something intrinsic in them but through their faith and Christs eventual completion of God's side of the bargain. Leviticus makes it sound like the sacrifices did something because THEY DID do something, but they were not the only mechanism at work. –  Caleb Oct 6 '11 at 20:51
Okay, but your comment goes against your opening statement, that they did nothing. Just pointing out an incongruency. –  jchaffee Oct 12 '11 at 14:52

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