How did the old ceremonial sacrifices made atonement? What was really going on externally and internally to the person who brought the ‘sin offering’ to God? What did it mean that their ‘sins were atoned for’? Did it make a difference if the sacrifice was made by faith or not?

Note: I am specifically looking for an answer under a ‘protestant framework’ that assumes all real forgiveness must be by ‘faith in Christ alone’.

  • This is a great question! However, there are too many answers here and it is old. I thought it deserved a comment regardless. 'faith in Christ alone'. Yes, unequivocally, I would never dispute this, and here it comes. I think it's funny that all such comments start out like this. ;-) Identifying Christ, in all cases, is the challenge. For instance, Abraham believed God, and it was accounted for righteousness. This is the same. Christ was crucified from the foundations of the world. It starts with the skins that covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve. Fig leaves were not sufficient. (Mat 21:19) Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 4:22

4 Answers 4


How did the old ceremonial sacrifices made atonement?

They didn't. Old Testament sacrifice was only able to atone for someone who followed the Mosaic law perfectly... a feat which is beyond any of us, especially as most of us are not Jews, and even if we were the Altar and priests are gone. The whole point of Jesus' sacrifice is that the former sacrificial system was inadequate. Sin offerings succeeded only until "just the right time", when Christ made one sacrifice for all.


Ok here is my stab at this rather important question which goes deep into the Christian faith. Let me start with these verses:

Romans 6:23 New King James Version (NKJV) For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 5:12 New King James Version (NKJV) Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned


"without shedding of blood is no remission of sins" (Heb 9:22, 26).

These verse set the premise that it is sin that requires death in order for it to be 'satisfied'.

(Some more verses to study: Eze. 18:4; Heb 10:3-4; Rom 5:11)

In the Old Covenant, i.e., The Old Testament, the Israelites were given the Law by Moses to fulfil two things:

  • Prescribed the technique that should be employed in order to permit a way to temporarily deal with their sin (I will talk more on this further down).
  • The other purpose, and many will argue the more important reason, is to show the Israelites where they were going wrong; it was not meant to be a permanent system to deal with their sins. It was there to make it obvious they could never meet the high standard of God. Romans deals with this whole question really but look at Romans 3 and especially verse 23 for this point.

Ok, talking about dealing with their sin, my first point. The sacrifices they made were made so that the blood of their sacrifices would make the remittance of sin possible:

"without shedding of blood is no remission of sins" (Heb 9:22, 26).

This is actually a symbol of Jesus, which is partly why we call him the lamb, the worthy sacrifice. The point that needs to be made is by the first scripture (Romans 5:12) '...one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned...", the first man being perfectly created namely Adam and the second perfect man Jesus. The Sin Offering was a temporary fix but it wasn't until the perfect man was sacrificed by His father that the permanent fix could be established.

You see, doing works of the law could not possibly justify:

Romans 3:20 New King James Version (NKJV) Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

Hebrews 9:9 New King James Version (NKJV) It was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience-

It is only by grace through faith that we are able to receive the justification and atonement to regain our place as people of God.

Ephesians 2:8-9 New King James Version (NKJV) For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast.

The word 'works' actually means works of the law it should not be confused with James 2:17 "...Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.", because that is talking about an inward change being manifested outwardly in our changed attitudes to serve our brothers, sisters and communities to the glory of God.

So, the answer to your question is that when sacrifices were made they had to be with a faithful heart, with the desire to honour God. Take Abel and Cain, Abel was said to have offered a sacrifice that pleased Him and in Hebrews 11 it says his offering still speaks today. When a sacrifice was made it was with utmost reverence!

The word 'atonement' has been told a 100 times to many a bored sunday school kid to be the same as at-one-ment, to be at one with God. The whole purpose of the human race is to be with God like Adam and Eve in the garden, walking with him and having relationship with Him. that is what atonement is trying to achieve, and it is fully and completely achieved by Jesus dying on the cross being the propitiation, that is suffering the wrath of God on every ones behalf because, if you remember, the wages of sin is death.

I hope this helps you get what you are after, or at the very least aid someone else in trying to answer this question.

Here is a list of the verses that talk specifically about Sin Offerings:






Please read the whole of the chapters to ensure it is kept in context.

  • Good stab. Just some clarification -'So, the answer to your question is that when sacrifices were made they had to be with a faithful heart' - buy 'faithful heart' do you mean a heart faithful to God (i.e. pure and virtuous), or a heart having 'some form of ancient faith in the Promised Messiah' born of the seed of Abraham? I suspect you mean the latter based on your foundational reasonings. Just curious. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 12:21
  • Faithfulness in that God is in control, would redeem creation. In fact I would have thought it is a deeper faithfulness that would take a lot of writing to describe. But in short yes, faithfulness in the coming messiah.
    – Mr. Mr.
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 12:41
  • And an expression of virtues also.
    – Mr. Mr.
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 12:42
  • 1
    I agree +1. The additional answer is more for historical comparison. Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 13:18

I think the only thing we can say for certain is that if the offerer presenting a sacrifice to atone for sins, did not do it with faith in Messiah (who actually providing that atonement) then no such atonement was obtained, except possibly an external kind of 'accepting the worshiper into the temple practices. '. In other words faith in Christ alone is the only way to obtain atonement but the external atonement of being accepted into the external form of worship, symbolizing true atonement, could be obtained by an animal. If we at any time imagine that real atonement for sins could be obtained in any other way than faith in Messiah, Christ died in vain. If atonement and favor of God could have been obtained without a direct link to Christ's death, then Christ did not need to die as that method could have obtained salvation without any further help by a God-Man.

Therefore these different ways of obtaining God's favor must have been expressions of faith just as the Lords supper is for us. Atonement and God's favor is not at all obtained by them, but faith in Messiah is expressed by them and that has always been how man found favor with God and no other way is possible and capable of atoning for sins. Sin deserves infinite punishment for offending the glory of an infinite God, making sin an infinite crime. Only the God-Man could endure such a punishment. In fact the smallest sin could never be even partially atoned for by all the goats, lambs and bulls ever born from Adam to now. These were symbols not realities as Hebrews argues and as the Lords supper proclaims.

Protestants have two sacraments, baptism and the breaking of bread, but they had hundreds of sacraments under a symbolic and externalization of faith representing a reminder of sins and a promise of better things.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. Otherwise, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins. (Hebrews 10:1-3, NIV)

However due to the waekness of that system by its use of animals to pay for human sins the worshipper could never have full confidence. They knew the object was not appropriate for the need, like to not answer like. Furthermore the clearness of the meaning of Messiah was still to vague in their minds. Therefore the sacraments were not fully 'able to clear the conscience of the worshiper.' This must have been part of the burden that Jesus wanted to alleviate when he said 'come unto me all whomare heavy laden and I will give you rest'.

Here we see the New Testament light on those ancient practices:

When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed as long as the first tabernacle was still functioning. This is an illustration for the present time, indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings —external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (Hebrews 9:6-10, NIV)


Briefly, this is exactly the problem that dispensationalism was trying to address. Scofield, Darby, et. al hypothesized that at different times, there were different ways to secure Gods favor. Key to this concept were the ideas of covenant and progressive revelation.

Progressive Revelation, in a nutshell, says that the Bible should be considered chronologically. If it "hasn't happened yet" in Scripture, then God hasn't yet revealed that as a condition or requirement. In other words, covenants must be explicitly borne out. Since Grace or even sole fide are not explicitly mentioned as being covenantial, an alternative dispensation (namely the sacrificial system) was required.

Depending on the scheme proposed by the dispensationalist, there were different covenants in place. Before the flood, it was to have fellowship with God. During the days of Israel it was through sacrifice. During the church age, it is through grace. During the tribulation it will be through avoiding the mark. The point is that dispensationalism teaches that history provides different mechanisms at different times.

Dispensationalists look to Hebrews as evidence of this system. Hebrews claims that Jesus was the fulfillment of the sacrificial system. Look, for example, at Hebrews 10:1

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship.

In other words, the covenant relies on ongoing sacrifice.

In being the sacrifice on the cross, Jesus, the High Priest overturns the sacrificial system. It says in v 12 - 14:

But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

With this sacrifice, Jesus is able to overturn the old covenant. As it says in verses 15ff:

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: 16 “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.”

In short, under this system, God changes the rules. Pure and simple.

  • 2
    I wonder how they connect these different dispensations to 'faith in Christ alone'? I consider that if in any dispensation man could find favor with God, not directly linked to Messiah, then Christ died in vain as one could have found atonement without him.
    – Mike
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 15:04
  • I should clarify, I'm not particularly dispensational in my theology - I'm just trying to flesh out the case... Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 18:30
  • I think you have done a good job explaining from that opinion but I am not a dispensationalist either, I agree with Mike, it is difficult to tie it back to the 'Christ alone' angle.
    – Mr. Mr.
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 22:04
  • I did not think you were dispensationalists but in my title 'Christ alone' I actually put it there to try and filter out some of the potential answers that can't tie it directly into Christ. Anyway good effort trying to explain it. cheers.
    – Mike
    Commented Oct 21, 2012 at 23:02

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